Every year approximately 3,000 families (over 6,000 individuals – 25% of them Hispanic/Latino) receive assistance from the Community Assistance Center in Sandy Springs in the form of food and clothing; financial assistance for rent and utilities; English classes, financial literacy and computer skills aiming to promote self-sufficiency and put families going through a crisis in a more stable situation.
At the helm since 1997 is a Latina Executive Director who has expanded CAC into a large network coalition of support comprising over 30 churches, many local businesses, community institutions, foundations, non-profit institutions and government agencies that come together to understand and help fight poverty in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody.
Tamara Carrera (Executive Director) has assembled a staff leadership team including Doris Pereira (Program Director), and eight additional team members, who manage a volunteer workforce of over 300 volunteers who work between four and twenty hours per week and do most of the direct work with clients addressing not only the symptoms of the problems (i.e. a family not able to meet rent payments) but also educating the community in general on the deeper causes and systems underlying the specific situations.
Last year, several articles summarizing research conducted by the Brookings Institution documented a definite national trend of poverty migrating to the suburbs as a consequence of the revitalization and gentrification of central cities. At the top of the top 10 list of suburbs with growing poverty is Sandy Springs.
Tamara immediately assembled her partners in a one-day “Poverty Summit” with participation from dozens of government agencies, NGO’s and local companies gathered to discuss strategies for addressing the issues. Working groups focusing on Health, Education, Economic Development and Hunger were formed and are continuing to meet to develop action plans.
A large part of their at-risk population is Latino Youth and young families. Numbers by US Department of Labor show that unemployment for Latino youth is around 32%. This high unemployment rate for young families does not allow for independent households causing strains as resources must be stretched to support more people often in cramped quarters.
Solutions to these complex issues require comprehensive solutions, and CAC develops an Individual Service Plan for each family often extending beyond financial assistance to educational programs that can put the family on the road to financial stability. CAC now offers a bonus to those individuals looking for financial help if they commit to completing basic financial literacy and budgeting classes. Over 60% of clients agree to participate, take the bonus and agree to a follow up program. CAC’s measurement tools show that six months after receiving assistance, over 85% of client families are still at their homes and are avoiding homelessness.
Education and leadership are serious business for CAC; the best proof is that they not only invest in their clients, they also run strict development programs for their volunteers and interns. “The next frontier for impact measurement is to track the positive impact we are making in the lives of our volunteers”, Tamara said. “They invest so much in us, it only makes sense we give back”, added Doris, the Program Director. “We have volunteers that came 15 years ago and never left and we also have students with whom we have a responsibility to prepare them for jobs in the near future”.
As we were finalizing the interview, I got to see one of the 300 snack backs prepared by students from a local school to share with children participating in CAC programs. A note inside the bag read: “Never be ashamed of where you come from because you are not the only one that’s been there. Sharing is good because it makes everyone happy”
With a yearly budget that has grown to $ 2.0 million dollars including cash and in-kind resources, CAC has been able to maintain its relevance at the grass root level and its visibility with the population it serves.