Providing a hand up to neighborhoods facing the challenges of poverty in Cleveland is “the next great initiative” for United Way of Bradley County.
President and CEO of United Way of Bradley County Matt Ryerson shared the vision for the Impact Cleveland Initiative with MainStreet Cleveland members during a meeting Monday.
“Impact Cleveland is essentially a group of folks ... getting resources focused in one specific issue and that is: ‘How do we tackle some of these neighborhoods that are really challenged?’” Ryerson said.
To be successful, such a project must be driven by those in the neighborhood.
Ryerson said United Way has been careful not to identify a specific neighborhood to focus upon. Rather, community meetings were held to hear concerns and discover which neighborhood already had leaders or unity in place that could be an avenue for change.
“There are pockets in our community that are just very challenged. They are struggling communities. Good folks that just have a number of challenges and a number of hurdles to overcome to meet a lifestyle that we would consider reasonable,” Ryerson said.
The United Way CEO referred to these areas as “pockets of poverty in Bradley County.”
Some communities in East and South Cleveland are “some of the most challenged communities in the state of Tennessee,” according to Ryerson.
Ryerson said he was surprised to find the neighborhood populations were not as “transient” as he had thought.
“These people have incredible pride in their neighborhood,” Ryerson said.
He said community members attending the United Way meetings wanted a change. They wanted to make things better.
At a meeting in the Blythe Avenue Family Support Center, keeping dogs from chasing children in the neighborhood was listed as a major need. The need for speed limit signs and sidewalks to keep children out of the street were also discussed.
Ryerson said members of the United Way council holding the meeting gave the community members contact numbers for animal control and the city of Cleveland.
“They were anxious. They were chomping at the bit. They wanted to do something. They went out of that meeting and they (community members) started developing a newsletter. They had a Facebook page. They had mulch delivered to the playground. They were calling the city to get speed limit signs,” Ryerson said. “They just needed that little nudge that said, ‘This is possible,’ and they went forward.”
In some of these neighborhoods the average annual income is below $10,000, Ryerson said.
A position within the United Way has been created to facilitate helping members of these communities, who want to see change, put that change in motion. This director will work with the community to discuss needs.
“We want small successes ... We are talking block by block. You may be saying to yourself, ‘That could take 10, 15 years.’ Yes, that is how committed we are to it — that it is going to take a significant amount of time to really overcome some of the challenges that those neighborhoods are facing,” Ryerson said.
Business and community leaders of MainStreet Cleveland were encouraged to focus on hiring people within walking distance of downtown as a way to partner with Impact Cleveland.
“This isn’t just a social service issue. It isn’t just a poverty issue. It is actually an economic need,” Ryerson said. “They are not looking for a handout, they just want a hand up. They just need a little nudge.”
He said downtown businesses and organizations have an opportunity to be a part of this nudge.
Collaboration between organizations is at the heart of many United Way initiatives.
Ryerson said there is not a lot of duplication of services in what United Way partners offer.
“If anything, we have gaps,” Ryerson said.
He said organizations that seem to help meet similar community needs often target specific groups, such as families or children.
Collaboration is the key to ensuring those needing a specific service can be referred to an organization to meet a specific need.
Community organizations often refer people to other organizations when they have needs they don’t support.
“You won’t find a community where nonprofits are more willing to lay down their individual goals for the greater good of the community,” Ryerson said. “The spirit of collaboration here in Bradley County is quite extraordinary.”
This is illustrated by how organizations have come together to provide a low-cost dental clinic for adults without dental insurance who have extreme needs.
Ryerson said none of the organizations were meeting this need, but together they made the new program possible. The clinic is basic and deals mostly with tooth extraction.
“It is usually people who are in terrible pain for long periods of time,” Ryerson said. He also said 100 percent of those who make an appointment at the clinic come to their appointments.
United Way of Bradley County will offer further support to its partner organizations next year in the form of AmericaCorp VISTAs.
VISTAs are individuals who are trained through the AmericaCorp program and are provided as low-cost or free employees to nonprofits.
Ryerson said the program serves as a way for a young professionals to develop skills at a nonprofit while the organization receives an additional staff member without having to pay a full salary.
The United Way of Bradley County has received a grant for eight VISTAs for one year. Seven of these VISTAs will be working for United Way partner organizations. The cost for the United Way will be $50,000. Ryerson said the return on this investment would be about $300,000 worth of work.