ACF Subrecipient wins "Imagine What's Possible" Contest

A subrecipient of the Iowa Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Strengthen Rural Iowa (SRI) project recently accepted a national award from the "Imagine What's Possible" story contest. The winning story by Pastor Jane Willan, features the outcomes of their ACF Strengthening Communities Fund award and technical assistance.

When a person in need walks through the door of Zion Church they are met with welcome, optimism, true caring and professionalism. Just ask Eddie Brewer who wandered into the church late last spring—Eddie was painfully thin, hungry, angry at the world and expecting that he was going to be turned away once again. Eddie is the individual churches and social services agencies tend to dislike. They often give him labels such as "a frequent flyer" because he tirelessly works the circuit of churches and other nonprofit agencies in town asking for cash, food or a place to sleep. Sometimes he just wants to talk. Eddie’s needs are desperate—he sells his food stamps for a floor to sleep on, has a payee who seems to keep most of his money and a case worker whose name he doesn’t remember. He is often physically depleted. He is always spiritually lost. And most of the time—he’s a nice guy.

But thanks to a Strengthening Communities Fund subaward from the Iowa Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives' Strengthen Rural Iowa (SRI) grant project, Eddie is now a participant in Zion Church’s program for assisting the neediest population in the Burlington, Iowa community. Reverend Jane Willan, pastor at Zion United Church of Christ, explained the motivation to apply for the award: "Our church is in an area hit hard by a failing economy. More and more people come to us in hopeless situations. We had to do something. We couldn’t keep turning people away." When the church received the subaward, it was like a dream come true.

The money from ACF’s Strengthening Communities Fund has allowed Zion to reach out to individuals like Eddie. In addition to increasing its own capacity to "bridge the gap" between homelessness and having a safe, affordable place to live, through the grant project, Zion Church has also established collaborations with state, local social agencies and community groups to "bridge the gap" between unemployment and re-employment. These organizations include Iowa Workforce Development, Iowa Department of Human Services, Community Action, The City of Burlington Public Transit, Young House and Autumn Heights Community Housing.

The subaward has also funded extensive training for church and community-wide volunteers who are now working in specific capacities to assist low income, unemployed, and homeless people. Due to the training in both outreach effort and non-profit organization and development, Zion Church's Bridging the Gap project offers employment counseling, job placement and resume writing for anyone who is unemployed. When a needy person comes into Zion Church to meet with a job counselor, they will also meet with a "life coach" -- thanks to the grant, individuals are trained in what Zion is calling "life coaching." That person will do an assessment of the individual’s most basic needs.

For example, a life coach may sign a person up for a food program, provide them with bus tokens or assist them in navigating the Iowa Department of Human Services On-line Application for Services (OASIS) website to register for additional benefits. A life coach may also secure resources to help individuals prepare their income taxes through free volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) or tax counseling to the elderly programs (TCE) or, if the person is a young mother, a life coach would help her sign up for supplemental nutrition through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.

Reverend Jane Willan admits that when she first met Eddie, she felt a bit perplexed as to what to do. "It wasn't that I found him undeserving, I just knew there was so little that a church is equipped to do to help him." The feeling of being completely unable to help often leads even people of faith to turn a cold shoulder. But in the end, the excellent training and support provided by SRI has equipped Zion church members to do exactly what they felt they couldn’t adequately do in the past—help those most in need.

Thanks to the Strengthening Communities Fund, Eddie's life is about to change. He will no longer use his food stamps for "rent" but will instead use them to buy food through Zion's food program called Angel Food. He will live in an apartment with a fully stocked kitchen, comfortable furniture, and central heating. Bridging the Gap will assist Eddie as he deciphers the pile of paperwork that accompanies receiving federal aid. The program also provides transportation to his doctor’s appointments and volunteers who will coordinate "checking in" on him. Life coaches will work with him on basic skills since Eddie has never used a washer or dryer and has seldom cooked a meal or paid a bill. Reverend Willan explains, "We know Eddie will need assistance learning these and other life skills or he is never going to live off the street—our program is not about providing things. It is about providing community."

Reverend David O’Rourke, a retired UCC pastor and the director of Bridging the Gap, said, "We see Eddie as a person, not a nuisance. And we are committed to helping him have a life where all the basics are met." With his mental and physical disabilities it will be challenging for Eddie to find full time employment, but he will no longer be wandering the streets looking for a warm doorway to stand in nor will he have to beg for a cup of coffee. Thanks to Strengthen Rural Iowa and the commitment of Zion UCC, Eddie will live a more productive life with a higher level of dignity every human being deserves.