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SHERIDAN — Representatives from six community action groups met at the Sheridan YMCA Thursday night to touch base and share their stories of progress in regard to enhancing community resources to counteract poverty. Each group originated out of an initiative of the Sheridan College Center for a Vital Community.
The CVC originally held a series of educational meetings, workshops and discussions centered around the goal of addressing poverty-related issues in the area using the framework established in a book by Phillip DeVol titled, “Bridges to Sustainable Communities.”
CVC estimates are that approximately 10 percent of the population in Sheridan lives below the poverty line. In addition, thousands more struggle with food insecurity or teeter on a threshold where one unexpected expense can significantly impact their ability to afford medicine, housing, utilities and other essentials. Sheridan’s job economy mirrors a national trend where the gap between high and low income families is wide, and many jobs in the area pay rock bottom wages.
CVC Director Amy Albrecht first recruited a group of approximately 150 community members from all socioeconomic standings to engage in discussions about cultural realities in each class of people. From a series of “Study Circles,” six initiatives gained traction to provide immediate help to people in economic crisis with the ultimate goal of helping people dig out of poverty.
Cal Furnish spoke on behalf of the group charged with the task of increasing awareness of economic issues within the community. Over the past year, he said the group has coordinated multiple public training sessions. The first, he said, focused on cultural issues.
“If I’m in poverty and you’re from middle class and someone is from wealth, we’re from different cultures,” Furnish said. “That’s just a fact. If we want to understand each other, we have to look at it in that way and increase our awareness and really look at some of our biases.”
Furnish said the committee is working to establish more training sessions for brief overviews and in-depth coverage of poverty-related issues for people of all economic standings.
Furnish said his committee is also piecing together a longer program tailored for those in poverty to raise their standard of living. He expects the course, which will be both instructional and supportive, to kick off next year.
Increase variety of food donations
Albrecht briefed the group on behalf of Stella Montano, who spearheaded an effort that provided more fresh produce to local food banks this year.
“The original thought was to have a food pantry that could also accept meats and game and toiletries and things like that,” Albrecht said, adding that the idea modified this year into reminding local gardeners to donate excess produce to The Salvation Army and People Assistance Food Bank.
“The great news is they did it,” Albrecht said, adding that food bank managers were enthusiastic about the donations.
Albrecht said the same initiative will hopefully be continued next year.
One-stop shop for resources
Cathi Kindt discussed her team’s progress toward establishing a unified center where people in need of assistance can receive a holistic assessment and diverse help from one location.
“We want to make sure people can get resources and remove those barriers, but also be sure those resources are being used appropriately,” Kindt said.
The group is also actively working to have local nonprofits enroll in the Wyoming 211 program, which would serve as a main database for charitable organizations until a physical facility can be established.
“We’re still trying to get the buy-in from those other community service agencies,” she said.
Support for people affected by mental illnesses
Dr. Victor Ashear shared the news that last year’s committee tasked with enhancing services and support for those with mental illnesses has established a local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness.
“NAMI was started in 1979 by two mothers who had children with schizophrenia, and they were appalled by the lack of services, the poor treatment, the disrespect and the lack of funding or resources for those with mental illnesses,” Ashear said, adding NAMI is a national alliance with chapters in each state. Sheridan became one of 12 in Wyoming.
Ashear said though his committee established the local support group, it is now a self-functioning entity, in which he, as a psychologist, has very little involvement.
“What’s nice about NAMI is it’s meant to be people-helping-people without professional oversight. It’s people with a mental illness helping each other. It’s also a support group for family members and people challenged by mental illness diagnosis and trying to recover.”
Sheridan’s NAMI meetings are the first and third Wednesdays of each month from 5 to 6 p.m. at the Methodist church.
Carmen Rideout said she had already been working with a county initiative over the past few years to work on the possibility of expanding public transportation.
“A year ago, when this group met, it just gave us more reinforcement of the need, and especially for low-income people,” Rideout said.
In the past year, the public transit initiative has hired a consultant using grant funding from the Wyoming Department of Transportation to conduct a study regarding how to attract public transit passengers, enhance the sustainability of the program and promote public transit services.
Representatives from the consulting firm will present their findings Nov. 21 at the Sheridan Senior Center at 4 p.m. The meeting is free and open to the public.
Jess Riley said her action committee is exploring different models of mentorship models available for local youth.
“Where we landed is we decided we wanted to focus on pre-high school grad mentoring,” Riley said, adding the committee has looked at several programs, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Skills USA.
She said the group has recently zeroed in on Childhood Advancement Placement currently operating in Bozeman. A subdivision of the Montana-based Thrive initiative, CAP focuses on on-site youth mentoring.
“At this point, we’re in a bit of a holding pattern” Riley said, indicating the team is currently waiting on the CAP program to release a business model, which is now expected to be complete by the end of the year.
Another unaddressed need
Albrecht said the original Study Circles on Poverty meetings also revealed a critical need for after-hours child care. While the possibility of setting up a babysitting co-op or other resource would allow parents to work odd hours, the task has been put on hold.
“It just couldn’t get traction,” Albrecht said. “It’s definitely a critical need, but it was more than anyone wanted to take on, at least for now.”
Thursday’s meeting of the separate groups was the first in approximately a year since they broke off from one main group into their respective task committees. Albrecht expressed enthusiasm about the first year’s progress for Sheridan’s “Bridges out of Poverty” program.
“This is the kind of thing where it could have just died. We could have been all fired up a year ago and had all these great ideas, stormed out, and then it just died,” she said.”They’re not only not dead, but they’re still going.
“This stuff is really happening. I couldn’t be more excited if I were twins,” she added.
As each committee continues work in its assigned area, Albrecht extended an invitation to all members of the public to join one or more groups in moving forward. The CVC can be contacted via telephone at 674-6446, ext. 4203