On the workday morning of Dec. 21, three members of Community Action Council of Howard County’s (CAC) Rapid Response team were far removed both physically and mentally from their normal duties of answering phones, filling out paperwork, and meeting with clients to see if they qualify for energy and/or housing assistance.
Instead of being in their normal office environment, Coordinator Beth Stein and Community Workers Faye Glover and DeAtlas Pigford were at the Ellicott City Head Start Center. There, Ms. Stein was trying to locate a picture of her dog on her cell phone to show preschoolers, Ms. Glover was dancing with youngsters, and Ms. Pigford was playing on a classroom floor with small children.
Those activities with inquisitive, energetic youngsters may sound like fun and games, and in some ways they were. But the three employees’ time at the Head Start Center, which included meeting with Center Manager TheKisha Towns and Family Service Worker Helen Ortiz-Jesus to learn about the program, was scheduled work. This visit was one of numerous steps CAC is taking to implement service integration.
In November 2015, CAC’s Board of Directors approved a Strategic Action Plan that included coordinating services across the organization to care for low-income households. To facilitate this goal CAC’s 100 employees have been cross training and shadowing other employees to become familiar with all of the organization’s programs in order to acquaint low-income households with services other than ones they requested. According to the Strategic Action Plan, the long-term goal is to better “mitigate poverty-related crisis and promote self-sufficiency.”
“We’re taking the burden of navigating social services off the client and putting it on the organization,” said Kathryn Maddux, whom CAC hired in May 2016 to serve as a full-time service integration specialist.
In addition to Head Start and energy and housing assistance, CAC services include the Howard County Food Bank and weatherization.
Many CAC staff members had never been acquainted with CAC services other than the one they worked on before CAC began implementing service integration. Joyce Harris, who has been a Head Start teacher in CAC’s system for 18 years, knew that Head Start family service workers refer people to CAC’s other services, but she said she had no idea how a person could became eligible.
Janiecka Brown actually received energy assistance from CAC before she became a Head Start teacher, but she didn’t make the connection that her employer was the same organization that provided that assistance until about six months after she started working for CAC.
The series of cross-training and shadowing activities organized by Ms. Maddux has begun to turn the tide.
The activities include the following:
- Visiting one of CAC’s four Head Start centers.
- Touring the Howard County Food Bank on Gerwig Lane in Columbia to talk to its staff and stock shelves.
- Dropping by the community garden in Long Reach in Columbia (which supplies produce to the food bank) to learn how it is tended and unearth its produce (literally)
- Attending instruction sessions led by the fiscal, fundraising, weatherization, and Rapid Response teams at CAC’s main headquarters on Gateway Drive in Columbia.
- Visiting the MultiService Center in Laurel, to discover its resources, which include a CAC employee trained to provide energy and housing assistance.
At each session, managers provide background information and answer questions. After each gathering, a short survey is taken to give attendees an opportunity to provide comments anonymously.
Sometimes an entire CAC department goes to a session as a group and other times only a few members of a department attend simultaneously in order to be able to continue to provide CAC services during scheduled hours. The training started in the summer of 2016, and has not yet been completed.
Employees who have attended training sessions see the value of learning about all the services that CAC provides.
During her time at the Head Start Center, Ms. Pigford was impressed by the patience of the teachers and how the students responded well to the structure incorporated into their day. “Head Start transforms children’s lives. Head Start can help them so they don’t need energy and housing assistance later in life,” commented Ms. Pigford. “I’m pleased what CAC as a whole represents. The CAC umbrella has so many facets.”
“I can always talk about something I’ve experienced more thoroughly,” said Shannon Abdelghani, a weatherization community worker, who plans to encourage one of her clients who has five children to use the food bank. That client is reluctant to seek other assistance, but Ms. Abdelghani hopes the rapport she has built with the client will help persuade the client.
Marlene Lomax, the internal auditor of the Rapid Response Team, says that service integration has taught her that if a client who has a child in the Head Start program comes into the office, the Rapid Response team can get that client’s documents quickly from a Head Start family service worker. This speeds up the qualification process because the team does not have to wait for the client to provide the paperwork.
Food Bank Coordinator Phillip Dodge said cross training has been “awesome. We get to see what our co-workers do and see the impact on clients and understand that as a team we provide wrap-around services. Together, we’re offering so much our clients need to move toward self-sufficiency.”
A Staff Advisory Group was formed to facilitate service integration, and met monthly during the second half of 2016. In addition to Ms. Maddux, its members were Leslie Aguirre, Janiecka Brown, Janelle Clements, Donald Corbin, Brian Ellis, Robin Harmon, Marlene Lomax, Joanna Martin, Helen Ortiz-Jesus, Dorcas Schindehette, Gladys Staton, and Kathleen True.
In December, the group submitted recommendations to senior management about how to provide clients a warm handoff from one department to another and how to continue training in three areas: technology, program, and customer service. Among the ideas for further program training are holding more CAC-wide training sessions each year (currently there is only one per year) and videotaping them so they can be shown to employees who are hired after the live training takes place.
“It was evident that group members were committed to being innovative and creative in finding new ways to do business,” said Ms. Maddux.
Members of the Staff Advisory Group now have the option to continue to serve on the group. Members who choose to come off will be replaced by other CAC employees. The next group will oversee the service integration process and make recommendations about a common CAC application, according to Ms. Maddux.
As all staff members become more knowledgeable about all of CAC’s programs and as the service integration system becomes further refined, eligible low-income families will be connected with more CAC services than in the past. And this is beneficial to families, especially ones with children. “When you help the family, you help the child,” said Ms. Maddux. “The child thrives more when there’s less stress in the home from economic issues.”
As families get additional monetary assistance it allows them to have more flexibility with their household budgets, which can lead to accessing higher education and then higher-paying jobs and self-sufficiency, according to Ms. Maddux.