Gail Souther is the first person you’ll meet when you walk through the doors at Community Action, Inc., located at 3 Washington Square, a multilevel brick building in downtown Haverhill that could be considered a relic by modern standards. Souther, who has been the organization’s receptionist for 25 years and knows just about everything there is to know, sits in a cramped reception area, a space she shares with other CAI employees who are meeting with clients or conducting intakes.
But across the narrow hallway, a brand new reception area is taking shape, one that is open and bright. The new space will not only be more conducive for Souther’s work as the face of CAI, but more importantly, it will be a welcome sight to people seeking help to navigate the rough waters of poverty.
Community Action, Inc. sits squarely in the middle of two of Haverhill’s poorest neighborhoods, and each year the nonprofit – one of over a thousand Community Action Agencies across the country – serves more than 15,000 people in the Merrimack Valley and beyond, many of them children, through a wide variety of programs and services designed to help those in need get back on their feet.
Being poor isn’t easy, said CAI’s CEO, John Cuneo. Simple tasks that most of us take for granted become so much more difficult when a person has few resources. Community Action, Inc. offers day care and early childhood education, fuel assistance, emergency support, food and clothing, consumer services, adult education such as English for Speakers of Other Languages and much, much more. Most of all, they give people hope.
“We are changing lives,” said Eva Balogh, an ESOL advisor with CAI.
Design of the new reception area, and a reconceptualization of CAI’s entire multi-level space, is being made possible due to a capacity-building grant from Essex County Community Foundation.
“The timing was great,” said CAI’s Development Director, Kerri Perry. “Capacity-building grants are few and far between, so this was a rare opportunity.”
CAI completed the purchase of 3 Washington Square in 2015, and when they applied for the ECCF grant in 2016, staff and administrators were looking to accomplish two things: create a functional physical space and examine the intake and evaluation of client data.
With the ECCF funds, CAI was able to partner with a team of four consultants from ESC of New England, a nonprofit capacity-building firm headquartered in Boston, who worked collaboratively with the organization’s management team to put a plan into action.
Walls are being moved, an elevator is being installed and Community Services – the CAI program dealing directly with clients in crisis and in need of immediate assistance – was moved to the first floor.
“ESC consultants worked directly with CAI administrators to determine the most effective use of the first floor space and how best to serve the public,” said Perry.
ESC consultants also evaluated CAI’s current data software. They met with staff and program directors to discuss their use of the software and collaborated with CAI to plan for improvements and upgrades. A member of the consulting team has even joined Community Action, Inc. as an ESC Fellow to see the data improvements through to completion, something that Perry is particularly excited about.
“The ECCF grant was instrumental in making this happen,” said Perry, who stressed that the data piece is crucial to CAI’s fundraising, service delivery, grantwriting, program evaluation and outcomes.
“It’s critical right now for the survival of all nonprofits,” she said about data. “It’s a game-changer for us.”
CAI’s story is proof that the power of small grants cannot be underestimated, said Julie Bishop, ECCF’s vice president for philanthropy. “The amount may sometimes seem small, but the overall impact they make and the snowball effect they often have can be very significant,” she said.
The greatest impact, of course, will be on the clients who rely on Community Action Inc.’s programming and services to live their lives.
“A lot of people need more than one service,” said Cuneo. “All of these improvements are going to make things more welcoming, effective and efficient for our clients.”
He also stressed how important improved data management and operating efficiently is in ensuring programs and services meet the needs of their clients.
“We want our improved data system to aid us in helping the whole person, not just one dimension, such as being cold or hungry,” Cuneo said. “By making things more efficient, each of our clients has a greater chance of success.”
For more information about Community Action, Inc., visit their website at www.communityactioninc.org.