CityLink grows while poverty shrinks

Before I went to CityLink, my life was a rollercoaster. I was depressed and not sure what to do,” John, a client of CityLink Center says. “It didn’t make sense not to try it out.”
With poverty in Cincinnati hovering at almost double the national average, one in four residents—a total of more than 80,000 Cincinnatians—lives in poverty. So John did what many have done since CityLink Center opened in November of 2012: walk into the doors of a place full of welcoming people and warm smiles that has put all the resources someone needs to get their life back on track under one roof.  
Before opening, CityLink worked to leverage social service resources and many faith-based programs that were already at work in the city and bring them to one location. The three main areas CityLink has partnered up to tackle are financial education with SmartMoney, employment assistance with CincinnatiWorks, and education with Cincinnati Public Schools and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.
Here’s how it works: Someone over 18 years old who is 200 percent below the federal poverty level, isn’t using illegal substances and is in stable mental health is eligible to walk into CityLink and attend a information session. After they decide whether or not they want to stick around, they meet with a service coordinator to plan out goals specific to their needs. If someone has a stable job but needs help obtaining and GED and working out a budget, then they will work with Cincinnati Public Schools and SmartMoney until they have reached their goals. CityLink also has legal aid assistance, counseling, childcare, parenting skill development, spiritual counseling and transportation assistance. Some clients only need a couple weeks for help getting a job, while others can stick around CityLink for up to a year in order to get a job, a GED and footing on the road to financial stability.
“It’s difficult for someone to walk into a handful of different places and continuously ask for help,” says Johnmark Oudersluys, Executive Director of CityLink. “Here, someone comes in, only has one case manager that knows everything that is going on, and they get to keep coming to a place that has friendly faces and people that remember them.”
Many of those friendly faces that welcome people as they enter the doors of CityLink are volunteers. CityLink employs 10 full-time and four part-time emplyees, while the volunteers, once at full capacity, will account for the hours of 28 full-time employees. This makes volunteers a central part of CityLink and something Oudersluys directly credits with its success.
“Our volunteers give us the chance to do things we wouldn’t be able to do with a small staff,” Ouderslys says. “We’ve had people say that they weren’t planning on coming back, but when our volunteers call them to remind them they have an appointment or class that day, they feel encouraged and keep coming back.”
Volunteers cover 160-200 one- to three-hour shifts a week, ranging from autocare to teaching to greeting at the front desk. CityLink doesn’t require a weekly commitment and gives volunteers flexibility to help at CityLink when they can and want.
“It fuels me to greet the clients and get to know them, says Marylou McIlwraith, who has been volunteering at CityLink for eight months. “We cheer with them for their achievements and know when they're having a bad day. Clients tell us that the greetings they get, and being called by name when they enter, makes their day”
Clients mirror this sentiment and keep going back because of it.
“The first time I walked in, there was a guy at the desk; his initial enthusiasm is what got me hooked,” John says. “That same little glow that was on him is on everyone that works in here.”
While getting people in the door and coming back is a success for CityLink, the goal is much larger. It’s to create lasting change in communities. As of September, 201 people had enrolled in employment assistance with CincinnatiWorks, 123 had worked on education goals and 212 had worked with SmartMoney on budgets and financial education.
The success is palpable. With many incentives to finish programs, clients feel motivated to continue to improve their lives because they can see the change happening. Once such incentive is the ChangingGears automotive program. After receiving financial education and living on a fixed budget successfully for three months, clients can purchase a vehicle from ChangingGears for a discounted market price and with a zero interest loan. Clients who have purchased a car from this program have a 100 percent on-time payment record.
“I wasn’t even sure of who I was when I went to CityLink,” John says, “They helped me get a job and it’s great. God has blessed me and now I want to be a blessing to others. I understand the struggle.”
So far, 90-95 percent of clients coming through the doors have been referred by word of mouth, but only 35 percent have been from the urban core and about 10 percent from Cincinnati's West End, where CityLink is located. Clients have come from as far away as Middletown, Indiana and Northern Kentucky, speaking to the need for this sort of comprehensive approach to fight poverty.
In a short time, CityLink has helped the few hundred people that have come through their doors, but they have room on their five-acre campus to help even more. The annual goal is to help 1,000 clients and bring the number of volunteers up to 500. As the number of volunteers grows, CityLink’s capacity grows hand-in-hand. CityLink is also partnering with corporations like Procter & Gamble, PNC Bank, Duke Energy, US Bank, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Farmer Family Foundation and Luxottica to raise money and bring in volunteers. The vision is massive and the goals are lofty, but with a successful year behind them and a growing team of volunteers and supporters, CityLink is on the way to changing the face of poverty in Cincinnati.
“We are trying to create true and lasting change for lives and this community, “Oudersluys says. “If the parents of a family can get their lives and homes stabilized, that’s going to trickle down to their children and change the future of the community.”
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