Regional organization celebrates 50 years of combating poverty

SEVCA, an agency born of the Great Society, helps move people from poverty to self-reliance

WESTMINSTER — Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) has come a long way in 50 years.

The agency, which declares on its website that “the strength of our communities is measured by the quality of life of everyone within them,” has worked to reduce hardships for the most vulnerable Windham and Windsor County residents for 50 years.

Grown from humble beginnings providing early education and support services to underprivileged children and their families, SEVCA now delivers nearly a dozen varied crisis intervention programs, helping individuals and families gain a foothold from which to stabilize their lives enough to start making the gains that will bring them back to self-reliance and independence, and a happier, healthier life in this little corner of Vermont.

Following a path not unlike many of the clients they serve, the agency has faced crisis and survived, through the dedicated work of professionals and community members donating goods, services, and time.

And on May 12, the agency will celebrate that milestone with those helped along the way and with community activists, donors, and staff with a commemorative dinner in Brattleboro.

Johnson's War on Poverty

The 1960s were a time of growing public awareness around social issues of poverty, education, and equal opportunity.

Fifty-one years ago, in August of 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Economic Opportunity Act, creating community-action agencies (CAAs) and 10 other programs as part of his signature War on Poverty.

That fall, the Vermont Office of Economic Opportunity was formed to accept federal grants for local War on Poverty programs. And that following spring, community action agencies formed.

The first took root in Windsor County, and then Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) was created and incorporated as a Community Action Agency in 1965.

Like the community-action agencies that sprang up all over the country, SEVCA took on early-childhood education from the beginning.

For any nonprofit, fits and starts, challenges, and even reevaluation of its programs are often part of the experience.

SEVCA was no different.

Starting out with an initial grant of $20,000, the organization hired an executive director, a coordinator and a full- and part-time secretary.

Joyce Strom and Ann Raynolds came on board and started the first Head Start as a summer program in 1965 in Springfield. Raynolds went on to be hired in 1968 as development director, to obtain federal funds for full-year Head Start, an early childhood development and family support service for preschool children and their families.

The venerable federal program works to enhance social competence, school readiness and, later, the academic success of disadvantaged low-income children.

Edgar May, a resident of Springfield who was then the inspector general of the national Office of Economic Opportunity, helped secure the funds, and Head Start became a full-year program.

Between 1968 and 1971, SEVCA and its Head Start staff worked to organize a Poor People's Congress and welfare-rights groups in Vermont. Despite help from George Wiley, executive director of National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), SEVCA could not get funding from NWRO to sustain these efforts.

The organization then entered a period of several years of turmoil, controversy, and leadership turnover in the early 1970s.

A group created an independent organization, Consumer Controlled Community Child Care (5-Cs), to receive the Head Start funds for Windham and Windsor counties, working closely with SEVCA.

This program flourished until changes put into place in the 2000s almost drove SEVCA and 5-Cs into insolvency.

The problem, says current Executive Director Steve Geller, was that the enthusiasm of his predecessor, Deb Osienski, for 5-Cs led her to expand it into a community sliding-fee-based program.

That change did not bring in the revenue from the community that she expected or the agency needed. Stretched too thin, the organization found itself ready to collapse.

Geller was hired in 2008 to come in, pull it back together again, and put it on its feet.

Background in community action

Geller came to SEVCA with a background in community action agencies, including Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in the Boston area, beginning in the early 1970s. He got his feet wet with urban-renewal and early-education programs.

Gellar can't exactly explain how his English undergraduate degree led to graduate school work in urban renewal planning, but he is certain of one thing: Community action is where he belongs.

When he had all but his thesis for his masters completed, he got “pulled into community organizing for Massachusetts Fair Share,” and then started getting people to rally around issues affecting their lives.

At the time, in Boston, “I was working to build support for improving neighborhoods and opposing rate hikes and to get slumlords to clean up their properties,” he said.

He worked first with the CETA program, which provided work for low-income, unemployed, and students in public agencies or private nonprofits. He then joined the VISTA program, which was established alongside the community-action agencies with that 1964 law.

And he has worked directly for various community action agencies for 33 years.

“It's what I was born for,” Geller said.

“For the last 28 years or so, I've been destined to have jobs in community action,” he said. “I love the work and people I work with. I am getting paid for what I want to do with great job satisfaction.”

On-the-job training

Within SEVCA, Geller does not hold a monopoly on that degree of job satisfaction.

One of the longest employees of SEVCA, Tonia White, has worked there nearly half her life. She oversees the agency's four Good Buy Thrift Stores and textile recycling programs in Bellows Falls, Springfield, Hartland, and White River Junction.

The director of thrift stores and textile recycling is herself an object lesson of one of SEVCA's long-held goals: to help people become self-reliant through supporting them with on-the-job training in the many cooperating places throughout the state where program participants can get work to get on their feet.

“I've worked here for more than half my life,” White said. “And I've grown in my training.”

White, hired in 1988, said that many of her job skills were gained on the job, not unlike many of their clients who access the agency's job-skills training program, where SEVCA supports, hires, and trains unskilled workers.

“I didn't have a lot of computer work at the beginning. But I told my bosses I was willing to learn 'if you're willing to teach me. I'm willing to learn because I believe in what you do here.' And I've been here ever since.”

She was first hired for the weatherization department. She trained “in house” and job-shadowed fellow employees so she could cover their jobs, including administering payroll and accounts payable.

She also worked with the food shelf that SEVCA operated at the time, keeping track of commodities that were dispersed, and she worked with the Vermont Job Start program, sitting in and going over loan applications for startup businesses. A stint working to establish public transportation, however, took her beyond her comfort zone.

But she found satisfaction working in the thrift stores. She was promoted to manager of the Bellows Falls store and has been at the helm ever since, finally expanding this service to the three other communities.

White said that she carries the most poignant memories of when what she did mattered and helped people's lives, from the days following Tropical Storm Irene and in the aftermath of one or two devastating fires over the years.

Satisfaction comes, “when I go to bed at night after something we did at SEVCA or our own program [the thrift store], knowing that someone else is going to bed better off or with their mind at ease that things will get better in their lives,” she said.

Her role is “not always glorious, but everyday things and knowing that we are helping people,” she said. “It's doing what I love, and that love sustains me.”

Executive Assistant Linda Brooks arrived a year after White, and she said she has seen a lot of changes through the years.

She is the front line when clients come to SEVCA, and she has heard “stories you would not believe” that illustrate the depth of poverty in the region.

And, she adds, “A lot of what I do is just listen. You wouldn't believe how relieved people are when they get off the phone just because they feel someone knows what is going on with them, and there is someone who is going to try to help them.”

She said if all she does for someone is to make them feel worthwhile enough to be helped, that is “huge.”

White and many of her colleagues share the collective experience of seeing SEVCA through its changes, its vulnerable times, and its recoveryy into a stable community action agency.

They have moved from SEVCA's original Bridge Street quarters in Bellows Falls to the agency's current Westminster site. They have worked to improve the agency's public image and repair its political relationship with the Office of Economic Development in Montpelier, which provides much of the funding, White recalled.

White has been with SEVCA as it weathered its ups and downs. She has seen community awareness of the agency rise to the point where it can play a key role for a community in distress.

Following the 2011 flooding from Tropical Storm Irene, she fielded the overwhelming community support that came in the form of donations of clothing, furniture, and almost anything someone might need when they've lost everything.

A constellation of programs

Today, SEVCA, which always works with other community action agencies, both locally and statewide, provides a number of programs to help lift people and families from poverty, including Head Start, one of its original services.

Through its Family Services/Crisis Intervention program, the agency provides crisis-resolution services for families in urgent need of housing, fuel, clothing, or food.

Homelessness prevention, housing stabilization, food- stamp outreach, budget counseling, information and referral, and case-management services also fall within this program.

A home-repair program for low-income homeowners ensures that families have “safe, healthy, secure, warm, energy-efficient and accessible places in which to live,” according to the SEVCA website.

Its economic-development program, Micro Business Development, provides training, technical assistance, counseling, and mentoring for start-up, retention, and expansion of small businesses for low-to-moderate income entrepreneurs to enable them to be self-sufficient.

Individual Development Accounts provide matched asset-building accounts enabling low-income individuals to achieve financial goals such as homeownership, education, and business start-up and expansion.

The Workforce Development program provides job-retention supports and job skills training and work experience for incumbent and unemployed disadvantaged and dislocated workers. Tax Preparation Assistance helps low-to-moderate-income residents obtain income tax refunds and Earned Income Tax Credits.

The Good Buy Thrift Stores and textile recycling program provides clothing, furniture, and household goods at affordable prices, or at no cost with vouchers for those unable to pay. The agency recycles unsold clothing, shoes, and other textiles to reduce the amount going into landfills and generate additional revenue.

The Weatherization Program provides home-energy audits, heating-system repairs and replacements, and a full spectrum of energy-conservation improvements free to low-to-moderate income households and at a reasonable price to higher-income households on a fee-for-service basis.

SEVCA employs approximately 100 staff members throughout the year. Brooks said the agency always seeks volunteers at the four thrift store locations, as well as at certain times of the year in the office and for events.

Changing lives

“Others can see the extreme difference in just the few months with Bella. I can see it day to day,” a father of a child in the Pine Street Head Start program wrote the agency. “Now I am wondering how high her ceiling can rise, how bright will her star shine, and how I can facilitate the growth. The gratitude that I feel is beyond my limited ability to express.”

To the Disaster Recovery Manager following Irene, one couple wrote, “Our deepest gratitude over the last several months. Throughout our grant application process you were always supportive and caring, never afraid to give us a firm nudge to ensure we stayed on task...thank you again for all you have done for our family.”

A woman identifying herself as a “grandma” wrote after she received assistance for replacing a furnace, a crucial necessity during cold Vermont winters: “Everyone connected to my furnace replacement was an angel on Earth.”

Yet another more recent SEVCA client facing cancer surgery received help with tax preparation that resulted in her getting a tax refund.

“It could have been a real disaster,” she wrote. “Now we will have extra cash, and we won't have to dig a deeper hole financially.”

Celebrating a golden anniversary

Geller said that the anniversary festivities are a way for both clients whom SEVCA has helped and the agency's volunteers and staff to come together to celebrate the achievement of self-reliance, independence, and stabilization in their lives.

The commemorative dinner will provide an opportunity to thank the residents of Windham and Windsor counties for their support and to recognize those who have participated locally in the struggle against poverty throughout SEVCA's history.

Dartmouth College Professor Annelise Orleck, author of Storming Caesar's Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty and an expert on the War on Poverty, will be the keynote speaker for the evening.

Orleck will speak about “The War on the War on Poverty,” highlighting its many successes despite the Johnson administration's anti-poverty programs being under political fire for most of the past 50 years.

Those invited to attend: board members, staff, volunteers, and other key participants in that history, as well as community leaders and activists who have addressed the causes and effects of poverty.

SEVCA is also appealing to anyone with information about people and events important to its history, or about someone who deserves special recognition for their role in helping people overcome poverty, to contact Linda Brooks at 800-464-9951.

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