STEPS to success

The most vexing of diseases in many cases frustrate medical researchers because they present a moving target. One approach to defeating a cancer shows promising results, but then the cancer mutates, and it’s back to the drawing board.

The same dynamic holds true for those who are seeking to root out the scourge of entrenched poverty in America. What’s been learned in Greater Cincinnati in the last three years — and was shared last week with practitioners from around the country — is that a holistic approach can many times overcome the “moving target” phenomenon when it comes to poverty.

“It’s about starting by building on the strengths of families, rather than their weaknesses,” says Melissa Hall Sommer, senior director for Family Economic Success at Northern Kentucky’s Brighton Center, Inc. “When you look at it from that perspective, it changes how you proceed. It makes you ask, ‘How do you then sustain those elements (that are working)?’”

The results that such a philosophy can produce were shared from Oct. 24–26, when representatives from 14 states came to Northern Kentucky to see for themselves how Brighton’s programming is impacting the communities it serves.

They heard stories like those of Brighton customer Liz Cowans, who found herself in a situation taking care of six kids — some with special needs — and her own disabled mother. She described herself as a proud person who had worked since she was 18 and never envisioned having to ask for help.

“Anything you learn here, take it back and help your people,” Cowans told more than 50 service providers visiting Brighton’s Center for Employment Training. “Have compassion in your hearts. It does make a difference. When I get to where I’m going with my goals, I want to be the one to lift someone else up.”

The Brighton Center and United Way of Greater Cincinnati are both on the leading edge nationally of an emerging philosophy in battling long-term poverty with a holistic approach called the two-generation strategy, or 2Gen for short. Each was selected for inclusion among just seven community organizations nationally chosen in 2015 for a pilot program called STEPS (Supporting Transitions to Employment for Parents).

Supported by $5.95 million in funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, STEPS aimed to take a 2Gen approach in helping create stronger families through two important goals: increasing workforce mobility and achieving economic security.

While the parents as breadwinners would seem to be the logical primary targets of immediate economic focus, the 2Gen approach recognizes that if kids aren’t secure and progressing, parents won’t make the progress they need, and also that the inverse is sometimes true, as well.

“We wanted the focus to be on getting the right people into the right programs,” says Emma Chaney, associate, community change at United Way of Greater Cincinnati. “You want to make sure the groundwork is there for success and the foundation is built. We wanted to look at questions like, ‘What if your child is sick and can’t go to daycare? Who can you rely on to help?’ so that person doesn’t have to miss a day of job training.”

STEPS ran through 2017 and helped both United Way and the Brighton Center pay for employment coaches to work with customers who were going through job training but also getting guidance with other needs. Even though both organizations were in the pilot program, there is a key difference to understand how they administered their versions of the program.

United Way of Greater Cincinnati is an umbrella organization that serves 140 agencies in communities across 10 counties, including four in Northern Kentucky and two in Southeast Indiana. Their participation in STEPS was focused on two initiatives they manage, Partners for a Competitive Workforce for adults and Success by 6 for children. STEPS allowed them to offer partner agencies the opportunity to connect, in particular, unemployed mothers of children engaged in early education programs with career path training through these two initiatives.

United Way-supported STEPS programming was offered in Cincinnati through neighborhood-based partners such as Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses in the West End; Mercy Neighborhood Ministries in Walnut Hills; Santa Maria Community Services in Price Hill; and the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency in Bond Hill.

Melissa Hall Sommer
Brighton Center operates at a different level, in that it is a direct provider of services itself, albeit a very large provider. Last year, Brighton Center’s nine different facilities helped almost 44,000 people from eight different Northern Kentucky counties (as well as a few hundred from across the river in Hamilton County) with its program offerings.

Their unique positioning as a large organization providing direct services that was already having significant success with 2Gen strategies made them an ideal choice for the post-STEPS site visit for peers, the first program of its kind nationally. It was organized by the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group as part of its 2GenACT initiative. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the original STEPS funder, helped underwrite the programming, as did the Anne E. Casey Foundation and Ascend at the Aspen Institute.

“Overall, it was clear that Brighton Center and its leadership team and staff had a unified vision, [a] strong set of values, were committed to equity, and took a comprehensive, root-cause approach to effectively serving families and children,” says Paula Sammons, a program officer on the Family Economic Security team at the Kellogg Foundation.

“We were and are very pleased with the choice of Brighton Center for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s STEPS two-generation pilot and know there will be positive impact on the economic security of vulnerable families and their children,” says Sammons, “as well as ripple effects throughout the region from all their good work, for years to come.”

Katrina Prophett, another Brighton customer that spoke to the visitors about her experience, is an additional example of how the 2Gen approach is making a substantial impact across families.

Prophett was a newly divorced single mom of three girls who had to move from Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky to live with her mom after her life circumstances changed two years ago. She previously had had a good job working in reservations for Delta Airlines, but needed to find a new path.

“I had three girls at the time, and now I have four. I had one who was nursing at the time and she kept getting sick, so every job I got, I had to give up,” Prophett recalls. “I had never been on assistance before, and now I was having to count on HUD (Housing and Urban Development).”

Prophett was pleasantly surprised that the caseworker that was helping her at HUD knew so much about the resources available from Brighton Center. As she saw the experiences of her own children through daycare, she decided she would like to pursue something similar as her new career. She began taking classes at Brighton’s Center for Employment Training — a modern, well-outfitted skills development facility in Newport’s Watertower Square.

“I had a life coach that helped me even with little things, like if I was going to be late or would need help with the kids, or help with necessities and basic resources, and then I had a financial coach who came in and helped me with my credit and asked what my goals in life were,” Prophett says.

She ended up working with Lela Rankins, the learning liaison for Brighton’s STEPS customers while that program was going on, and now as a case manager at Brighton’s Northern Kentucky Scholar House. Prophett, who now considers Rankins to be her mentor, had begun to work on a business plan for a mother/child social bonding idea called Mommy Play Date, which Rankins helped her develop. The business is up and running and, at this point, Prophett is returning to Brighton Center monthly to run her own volunteer program for moms and kids.

That’s exactly the kind of full-circle journey that the 2Gen approach hopes to inspire. Brighton Center and United Way of Greater Cincinnati, along with their respective partners, worked collaboratively to learn how to get the most out of this approach during the STEPS pilot. Now it’s continuing on, with Brighton adjusting all their programming to reflect what was found effective through STEPS.

Brighton is now programming off a strategy called family-centered coaching. At its core is a self-sufficiency continuum with a base level of building connections, a secondary level of building skills, and a top level of building a future. Brighton has come to recognize that its customers can be at any level in that continuum, and that the key to helping them succeed is letting them take the lead in figuring out what they need most.

“If we can get families to the place where they feel they are progressing on their hopes and dreams, then they become resources to each other,” Brighton’s Sommer says. “It’s really about creating those things, something you are building within that family.”

That approach is now the focus emphasized to all Brighton staff. As Sommer describes it, it’s a matter of perspective. They don’t want staff trying to prove to customers how great they are at providing services; they want them to focus on giving power to customers and their families to decide where they need the most help. When that happens, she says, their experience with STEPS has shown it can be a much more effective approach to producing lasting outcomes.

“We are on a journey, and in some places we feel like we are fully there and others we’re still learning how to better serve families,” says Sommer. “Strong children come from strong families which come from strong communities. You need all three of those elements for this to really work.”

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Read more articles by Carey Hoffman.

As a Cincinnatian for almost all his life, Carey Hoffman has written about numerous subjects involving almost every Greater Cincinnati neighborhood. He enjoys history — both local and beyond — reading, anything to do with golf, most things related to basketball, and all things that make Cincinnati a more interesting and better place.