Poverty 911

REGION – Sometimes the problem is critical – a foreclosure or eviction happening that very week – or maybe it's not as time-sensitive but still a pressing concern, such as needing transportation because of vehicle repairs or requiring assistance with health care or childcare costs.

Whatever the curve ball life throws, a new "one-stop shop" for community resources is providing a helping hand.

The free service known as HelpLink connects "navigators" – trained volunteers who understand what's available through agencies, organizations and programs in the five-county area – with individuals who have family or personal needs. The program, which stems from the Traverse Bay Poverty Reduction Initiative, does not directly provide financial assistance, goods or benefits, but helps identify resources to meet these and other needs.

In the five-county area, 10.5 percent, or 17,170 people, are living in poverty, according to the Initiative. This means an individual annual income of $10,400 or less, according to Federal government figures. Some 22.9 percent of families in the region have an annual income of $25,000 or less, according to the Initiative.

Beyond living in poverty, many people in crisis simply do not know the scope of available options, or how to make arrangements for assistance, says Jim Rowlett, a HelpLink board member and co-director of the Initiative. HelpLink volunteers are trained to navigate through these details, suggest options and to expedite help.

HelpLink, housed in a building owned by Faith Reformed Church at 1105 East Front Street, on the northeast corner of Front Street and Garfield Avenue, is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. No appointment is necessary.

"They come in and they are welcomed warmly," Rowlett said. "They are welcomed more as a guest than as a client – like a member of the family."

From there, individuals, who are referred to as "neighbors," meet privately with navigators to share their needs.

"We try to sort out what is really the highest priority thing that they need to get taken care of here," Rowlett said.

Often, a navigator will make calls right there to the appropriate agency or organization that can offer help.

"They'll hand the phone to the neighbor and they can talk directly to the right person," he said. "Their problem may not be resolved right there on the spot, but they've been listened to and they've been connected with the best resource in the community."

HelpLink navigator Fred Schaafsma believes the one-on-one interaction is the most significant part of the process.

"They know, 'Somebody is actively listening to me,'" said Schaafsma, a retired engineer living in Traverse City. "It's hard for people to ask for help – it's hard for me."

Schaafsma began volunteering with the Poverty Reduction Initiative awhile back after attending a conference addressing poverty-related issues.

"I felt it was my turn to help," he said. "The personal satisfaction and joy you get from helping someone else is immense."

A growing number of individuals are visiting HelpLink each week.

"In the first week we probably had two or three people the first day, and four or five the next," said Rowlett of the service that opened its doors late last year. "From there, it tended to double – 20 or so the first month, 40 the second month, and the third month there was 75 or 80."

This July, more than 300 people stopped by to talk with navigators, Rowlett said. Navigators, meanwhile, number about 100, with about 40 to 50 of them volunteering on a regular basis.

"We will typically have four or five navigators on a given shift on a given day," Rowlett said. "A shift is from 10 to 12:30 and then noon to three. In some cases, some of the navigators might stay all day."

Navigators also follow up with "neighbors" within a week or so after a visit.

"We've had an extremely positive response," Rowlett said of the feedback from those receiving help and guidance. "They'll say, 'They listened to me and it was very helpful.' They go away feeling like they got connected with the best resources they could."

Michelle Northrup, an AmeriCorp VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker from Traverse City, is helping the Poverty Reduction Initiative and HelpLink with its data tracking.

"When I heard that they were looking for people, I was excited to do that," she said. "I do believe that circumstances can happen to anybody where they could be needing financial assistance at any time in their lives. It's great to have people to hook them up to the system. Sometimes the paperwork can be so daunting."

HelpLink could always use additional volunteer navigators, Schaafsma said.

"The key ingredient is, do you care about your fellow human being? Are you compassionate?" he said. "They're just like any one of us. It's not like, 'those people.' We all could be in that situation."

To learn more about HelpLink, call 231-946-6278 or see nwm.org/pri.asp to learn about the Poverty Reduction Initiative and HelpLink. BN