One step forward…and another step back.

In this job we celebrate a lot of successes–both small and large–with the families we work with. However, the reality in life (for our clients and ourselves) is that sometimes, with each step forward, we are forced to take one or two steps back.

Brick Wall with Woman on GroundIt can be very frustrating for the teens I work with through our Teen Parent Outreach Program at Bridges of Hope: when they are trying to make a better life for themselves and their children, at times it seems that they run into wall after wall (or in social work jargon, “barrier after barrier”) that just stops them dead in their tracks. Luckily, more often than not, the teens I work with are very resilient and keep trying to push forward despite the difficulties. For example:

Erin is 18 and has a son, Derek, who is 11 months old. When I first met Erin, she was going to high school, was on track to graduate, and was planning on starting college in the spring (one step forward), but there was no room for her to start until the fall (one step back). At that time she was living with her dad and brother, and she found out she was going to get into housing of her own (step forward). Two weeks before she was set to move in, she found out that the previous tenant would not be moving after all (step back). Shortly after that, her family was forced to vacate the apartment where they were living, and her dad and brother moved out of town, leaving Erin alone with Derek (step back). Thankfully Erin was able to live with a friend and found a job (step forward). She began to receive some child support, and with her job, she was able to stop receiving county cash assistance (step forward). Then, her hours at work were cut and the child support stopped too (step back). Erin decided to look for more work (step forward). She is limited to where she can search because she does not have a driver’s license or a vehicle (step back). She was able to obtain a bike and a carrier for Derek (step forward). Shortly after obtaining her bike, the wheel on the carrier popped and she does not have the money to fix it (step back).

And on and on it goes for so many of the families we work with–sadly, this is the day-to-day reality for many living in our community. I see it as my job to help walk alongside and celebrate the successes, as well as provide encouragement during those (sometimes difficult to swallow) steps back.

Happily, Erin is once again on the “step forward” track: she recently obtained housing of her own, is still looking for a second job, and she continues to push forward to provide for Derek. And no matter what, I’ll be there to support her in in her journey.

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Jane & Sharon: Walking Side by Side

Our Side by Side Mentor Program is working to break down barriers and debunk stereotypes about poverty by building social capital in women.

“What exactly IS social capital,”  you ask?

friendsWell, Oxford says it’s a noun meaning “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.”

Dictionary.com says it’s a noun meaning “the network of social connection that exist between people, and their shared values and norms of behavior, which enable and encourage mutually advantageous social cooperation.”

So, it’s pretty much agreed that “social capital” is all about networking, social connections, relationships, etc.

Ever since Side by Side kicked off last fall, we have been fostering these networks and connections among ten women: three are “Mentees,” and seven are women from the community (“Mentors”). We have watched these relationships flourish and produce many positive outcomes in less than a year.

One great example of how the Mentor/Mentee relationship is moving women from a place of day-to-day survival to sustainability is Jane’s story:

Jane is a single working mother trying her best to balance her family, work and college. She had the skills needed to navigate everyday life but was missing one important thing: a strong support network. Jane joined Side by Side as a Mentee in November 2012, and for the past seven months she has been actively involved with the program: attending monthly group activities, meeting with a Bridges of Hope case manager and connecting with her three individual Mentors on a weekly basis. These Mentors have been available for Jane to talk through stressful situations, take a break for a cup of coffee, and even bring over meals while she was studying for final exams.

With both the support of her Mentors and her own strong determination, Jane has been able to maintain stable housing for her children, start a new job, and successfully complete another semester of college.

It’s amazing what being in “Side by Side” relationships with others can do!

The Side by Side program is currently launching its second cohort (Summer 2013) with a new group of Mentors & Mentees. If you are interested in supporting this important program, here’s what you can do:

If you or someone you know is interested in being a Mentee, or if you just want more information about Side by Side, call 218.825.7682 and talk with Carly.

Shelly’s Moment

Shelly is a young mother of two: 8-year-old Stevie and 7-month-old Stephie. Shelly was referred to Bridges of Hope’s Family Support Services to provide her with some additional parenting support. She was struggling to manage the needs of both a school-aged child and an infant, in addition to the added financial costs–she had long since worn out, passed on, or shared all of her baby items with friends.

Family Support Services is a unique program that can be tailored to fit the goals of each family. Staff meet one-one-one with parents in their home and set goals based on each family’s individual strengths and challenges over the course of about three to six months. The goals often include support and resources for things like transportation, catching up on bills and strengthening budgeting skills, establishing childcare, or learning new parenting techniques. Our role is to assist and encourage parents throughout the process of accomplishing their goals.

Once we connected about the program, Shelly began meeting with me each week. During one of these weekly meetings, Shelly confided that she was three months behind on her rent, due to having been on bed rest during her last two months of pregnancy, which meant she didn’t have any income for those two months–or when she was on maternity leave for six weeks after Stephie was born. She had been able to return to work and had been paying her monthly rent since then, but she was still struggling to catch up. We were able to connect Shelly with two area resources–the Salvation Army and Cradle of Hope–to help Shelly catch up on her rent. Cradle of Hope is a program specifically for families who have experienced a financial hardship due to pregnancy and the birth of a child, and we collaborate with our local Salvation Army regularly to help meet the needs in our community.

After Shelly’s immediate housing situation was resolved, I was able to continue working with her for several more months, supporting her as she continued working toward accomplishing her parenting goals. Knowing that she would continue to have a place to live allowed Shelly to really focus on sharpening her parenting skills. Today, Shelly continues to work full time and has the financial means to provide for her family. She wrote a note to Bridges of Hope recently, which described her experience in our Family Support Services program: “Thank you again. Your organization is incredible. You’ve not only helped me stay in my house, but all of the other things you did too! I can’t say in words how much I appreciate it.”

We’re glad we were able to be a part of Shelly’s Moment.

Get more connected with Bridges of Hope:

Finding Creative Solutions to Help

At Bridges of Hope, we deal with a wide variety of situations, and we try to find not only appropriate but also creative solutions for families who sometimes are facing some unique situations.

One example of the ways we are sometimes able to be creative is Sandy’s story:

Sandy is a mother of two boys: Nathan (age 7) and Kyle (age 4).  Sandy was struggling to find productive activities and healthy outlets for the boys who both have serious mental health diagnoses. Sandy had been utilizing Respite Services once or twice a month, but she was wondering what she could do to provide an activity for the times when they were together as a family. That was when Sandy was connected with Bridges of Hope.

SandboxA staff member met with Sandy and then took the information back to the entire team. As staff pondered Sandy’s story and her concerns, slowly the idea to build a sandbox began to form. A sandbox would provide the boys an active outlet for their ADHD and other mental health issues. Bridges of Hope was able to utilize its Just For Kids fund to assist with purchasing wood, sand, and other materials needed to build the sandbox.

A few weeks later, when the Bridges staff followed up with Sandy, she reported that she had made building the sandbox into a family project, and it was already getting lots of use every day. Sandy said both boys loved the sandbox, and it was a real benefit to have something for the boys to do outside together.

Over the past ten years, we have encountered many different family situations. Some happen more commonly for families: cars break down, someone loses a job, a plan for daycare falls through, or there simply just isn’t enough money to pay all the bills. Others, like Sandy’s situation, have happened only once or twice: gophers chew through wiring, a toddler is sneaking out of the house at night, two boys need a healthy outlet for their extra energy. Whatever the situation, Bridges of Hope seeks to look at each individual family’s story as its own unique situation, and we tailor our services, suggestions and resources to best fit that family’s needs. Bridges was founded on this idea: to simply be the bridge between families and those with the resources to help families. That means the bridge might look different for different families, but that’s the whole idea: that each family is different, and a one-size-fits all solution simply doesn’t work in every case.

For Sandy, her solution was a sandbox. The next time for another family it might be help with a water bill. Or referrals to a housing program. Or help setting up Respite Services to provide a break for a parent. Each time, for each family, we work to connect families with the resources that best fit them, right in the situation they’re in, given the strengths and needs they have at the time. In that way, we are able to constantly adapt our services to best meet the needs of each person who reaches out for support. And that’s what it’s all about: helping in creative ways to build bridges.

Get Involved:

  • Learn more about Bridges of Hope’s services, or refer a family in need to us.
  • Read other stories about how we are helping families connect to resources.
  • Make a donation to support our work with a family.
  • Contact us to make sure we know about the services you provide in our community.

A Good Solution for Julie & Hanna

This year, Bridges of Hope added a new program to its continuum of services for families. Respite Services provides a regular break to parents or guardians of children with mental health or behavioral challenges. This is typically a scheduled break at the home of a respite care provider who has been selected by the parents.

But you might be thinking, wait a second–I thought Bridges of Hope already did this! It is true that we also administer Crisis Nursery Services, but there are some key differences between the two. Parents utilizing Respite have an ongoing plan to use the service–often utilizing it once a month, and/or at regular intervals throughout the year (to help provide a break for caregivers of a child with mental health or behavioral challenges). Crisis Nursery, on the other hand, is short-term childcare during an immediate family crisis situation, when there are no other safe alternatives for children.

An example of just such a Crisis Nursery situation is Kendra’s story, which you can read here.

In contrast to the more immediate nature of Crisis Nursery, Respite works this way:

11-Year Old Girl

Julie is a single mom, fairly new to the Brainerd Lakes Area. She contacted Bridges of Hope requesting assistance in establishing Respite Services for her 12-year-old daughter, Hanna. New to the area, Julie had no friends or family available to provide her–or Hanna–with a break. Julie explained that when Hanna was 2 years old, Julie became her Foster Care Provider, later adopting her when Hanna’s birth parents’ rights were terminated. Over the course of the next year, Hanna’s behavioral challenges became more pronounced, and she was eventually diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

At Bridges of Hope, the staff was able to provide Julie with a list of Respite providers who had availability work with new families. Julie connected with one of the providers and was able to meet them in their home to make sure it was a good fit for Hanna. After working with the Bridges staff on establishing how much Respite would be appropriate to meet Hanna’s needs, Julie and the provider were able to set up a regular schedule for Respite, and Hanna is currently receiving the service one day per month. Julie reports Respite has been a good solution for both herself and for Hanna.

As a single parent myself, I know through my own experience the importance of having someone reliable to call on in times of parenting stress, and I feel so blessed to have an extensive informal support system for the times when I need a break or have a childcare emergency. The reality for many families, however, is that this informal support system does not always exist. Kendra’s and Julie’s stories are both examples of the way Bridges of Hope helps bridge the gap for those parents who may not have many (or any) healthy, supportive adults in their lives to help care for their children in times of need or stress. Crisis Nursery and Respite Services help provide this critical relief for parents who are working hard to raise their children and who need just a little additional support to be successful.

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Take Action:
>>Learn more about becoming a Foster Parent (or contact your local county
for more information).
>>Learn more about adoption in Minnesota through MN Waiting Children.
>>Learn more about the importance of healthy, early-childhood attachment.

Rachel is the Living Proof

Here at Bridges of Hope, almost 100% of the clients we work with are struggling financially to some extent. One of our main goals when helping a family navigate their way through a financial crisis is to try to prevent the situation from happening again, which can be pretty tough. Most of us can be a bit “stuck” in our financial habits–or don’t even know we have financial habits, let alone knowing how to go about changing them. And I’m the first to admit that in my own life, personal finances can be a difficult area to talk about openly with another person. Some of the families we work with may not be ready to adjust their financial priorities yet, but we believe it is still important to present them with some of their options anyway, so that they know how to access the help they need when they’re ready to make a change.

One of the ways we determine what those options are is by completing a budget worksheet with the family. By collecting a household’s monthly income and expenses, we are able to quickly identify any obvious gaps that low-income families might have, such as eligibility for a local food program or seasonal utility assistance to help their own funds for food and utilities stretch further. Our Financial Resources Program is specifically designed to match people with the resources they qualify for, and we have made a practice of seeking to become the local “experts” on both the area resources that exist and the guidelines or criteria needed to access them.

TV AntennaWhile working with a family, we often have to have the tough conversation of sorting out what constitutes a “need” versus a “want,” and prioritizing which kinds of bills are the most important to pay first and on time. We usually suggest expense-reducing options for categories that fall closer to the “wants” side, such as finding less expensive phone plans and cutting down or eliminating cable and internet plans. For example, our community has several free resources for accessing the internet, including our area libraries, as well as our local Workforce Center for job seekers (for resume help as well as seeking job openings). I am proud to report that I have even followed my own suggestions and am living proof that someone can still enjoy television in 2012 with just an antenna, which does not require a contract or monthly subscription fee.

This time of year, we also have the sometimes-difficult “Plans for Your Tax Return” conversation with our clients. For many of the families we work with, it can be daunting to figure out the best use of a tax return, especially if it exceeds their usual monthly income (which last year averaged about $475/mo for each member of a household). We work with families to create a plan that will not only address their immediate crisis but also help create a more long-term cushion against future crises. For example…

  • If the client has been struggling to pay their car insurance each month, we may suggest that they use their tax return to pay a full year’s worth of car insurance. Not only will their car insurance be paid for a full year, but they will also save money overall, since they can avoid monthly installment fees.
  • If a client is struggling to pay their rent consistently and on time, we might encourage them to contact their landlord to see if they can pay for several months’ worth of rent at once (landlords tend to appreciate payment in full–and in advance). Sometimes this arrangement can even give the client some flexibility to negotiate for lower rent, if they are offering to pay a significant amount at one time.
  • If the immediate crisis has been resolved and there are no other no major financial issues at the time, we can suggest the client start an “Emergency Fund” at a local bank, to prevent a future crisis from happening in the event of a job loss or illness.

We also recognize that the interactions we have with our clients are limited in scope, and sometimes more in-depth financial literacy education is necessary. In this event, we make referrals to other programs with just this specialty, such as Lutheran Social Services Financial Counseling, or an extended training course such as Financial Peace University, a 13-week money management program often offered at our local churches.

I am currently working with a client who has taken steps to make these kinds of changes in her budget:

Rachel, a single mother of three, was working nearly 35 hours a week and had a fairly stable financial picture, when her child support abruptly ended, causing a hole of over $600.00 in her budget each month that she had counted on to care of her children’s needs. Through our work together, Rachel has cut her cell phone entirely and retained her land line, saving $85.00 each month. She made the tough decision to completely cut out her cable and internet packages, saving an additional $120.00/month. Due to the change in household income, Rachel now qualifies for food support and has applied for that program to help make up some of the deficit she now has.

We are continuing to work with Rachel, helping advocate for her with her landlord to allow her to pay a portion of this month’s rent next month after she receives her tax return–and to pay the next several months in advance. Rachel has really worked hard to change the way she looks at her financial situation and to gain control of it herself, setting herself up for future stability.

At Bridges of Hope, part of our mission is to strengthen, stabilize and support families. We regard building financial literacy among the families we serve as one of the most important things we can do to “help.” Each day we do our best to both provide the resources that will keep a family’s current crisis from becoming a catastrophe, and to provide the kind of education and support that will prevent a future crisis from even happening in the first place. When a family like Rachel’s really works hard to overcome their short-term crisis and set themselves up for future success, they in turn become the living proof for us that real, lasting change is truly possible for families.

It’s a Partnership

There are many families right now facing very difficult times. So many, in fact, that to be frank, I realize many of you have probably grown a little tired of hearing about the tough stuff going on in the lives of men, women and children in our community. I understand. It can wear on us, too. But it got me thinking…

What does it really mean to live in poverty in the Brainerd Lakes Area?

Well, technically speaking, for a family of four, you are considered “living in poverty” if your household income is $22,350 or less. That is approximately equal to two employed caregivers working 30 hours per week at minimum wage. If a family with this income followed “the rules,” they would need to find housing for only about $550 per month (or about 30% of their income). That would leave them approximately $1,100 for food, transportation, childcare, insurance, utilities, and all of the other things in life that add up–never mind the emergencies in life.

But is poverty only about financial capital? What about social capital?

What we see over and over is that so many families who reach out to Bridges of Hope are not just struggling financially: they are lacking the kind of support network that many of us have. We know that money alone isn’t the answer AND a support network alone isn’t the answer: but having some of both can make life a whole lot easier.

Bridges of Hope was established just over nine years ago to act as a bridge between families in crisis and the support & resources that can help them alleviate that crisis. We served around 150 households that first year and over 2,000 households last year alone.

It may be difficult to imagine, but every single day we come into contact with families and children who have been through hunger, abuse, homelessness, abandonment, and more. The good news? Bridges of Hope is here to help.

When you have car trouble, an ill family member, a furnace that breaks down or your children simply have a day off of school, what do you do?

I call my husband or father for car trouble, my best friend when I need support to help me deal with the fact that my mom is battling leukemia, a trusted neighbor to consult about the most reliable furnace repair person; and luckily, I have another trusted neighbor who will watch over my kids for a couple of days so I don’t have to disrupt my work schedule.

For the families who are going through these and many other kinds of crises, we do offer financial support in some cases (when all existing resources have been tapped), but long before it even gets to that point, what we really have to offer families is a partner: a partner they might not otherwise have.

At Bridges of Hope, we are also proud to partner with local churches and other area nonprofits to deliver needed services to families in Crow Wing County. It can be overwhelming and confusing to seek help, and we aim to act as a bridge between families and what they need to be successful. We aim to see that our area resources are utilized wisely and without duplication. We never want to offer a service that is already available–and when a gap IS identified, we try to fill it or work with our partners to find a creative, collaborative solution.

We do have some specific programs (you can read more about them here), but to keep it simple, what I can tell you is that on average, we can act as a partner to a family for just $150, and we have been working hard this year to make sure over 6,000 men, women and children in the Lakes Area don’t fall through the cracks when they are experiencing a crisis in their life.

Our life-changing and life-saving work helps women like 39 year-old Connie: a working single mom who needed to leave her home with her two school-aged children because she was being beaten by her husband.

We also help people like Francine and George: Francine reached out to Bridges after George had a stroke and became paralyzed. They needed help paying for a van that could transport George to his many, many medical appointments and to family gatherings that were so important to them. Francine and George were able to pay for most of the van, Bridges chipped in for the difference, and George hasn’t missed a medical appointment or any of his grandchildren’s school programs since.

As I mentioned before, it costs on average about $150 per household for Bridges of Hope to be there when Connie, Francine, George, you, your sister or your elderly neighbor needs us.

Recently, Poverty Bound was held in Crow Wing County. It gave many of us service providers a way to tell the stories of these amazing clients we work with on a daily basis. Not all of the stories have a happy ending, but here at Bridges of Hope, we continue our work to help more and more families create happier endings to the stories they call us with.

Between now and December 31, we are working to eliminate our $60,000 year-end funding gap. This will allow us to change the lives of 400 more families we are expecting to serve between now and the end of the year. 

I hope you’ll help us as a partner in this mission. You can get involved here