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Agency leaders came to Raleigh last week to tout the successes of North Carolina’s community development block grant program.

By Rose Hoban

When Albert Wiggins was younger, he admits he was pretty aimless, hanging with the wrong crowd, involved with drugs and alcohol.

“I didn’t have no hope. I was in the streets, running and doing nothing,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins had it in his head to straighten up. He started attending church and was trying to raise his two children after the suicide of his first wife.

Albert Wiggins and his new wife, Juqetta, came to the General Assembly to attest to the success of the community development block grant program. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

He decided he should become a barber. The problem was, he didn’t have the money to pay for the yearlong course. That’s when the Greene Lamp program in Kinston stepped in to pay the tuition.

“They didn’t finance barbering [school], but chose to take a chance on me,” Wiggins said. “And they would help me out maybe with paying for my clippers.”

“I really needed it at that time because I was a single father raising two kids,” he said.

The program that paid for Wiggins to get through barber school and apprenticeship was financed by a federal Community Services Block Grant, money provided to the Greene Lamp annually. Greene Lamp’s self-sufficiency program is intended to help people like Wiggins climb out of poverty and get off of governmental support programs.

So when an official from the Greene Lamp asked Wiggins to take a day away from running his three-person barbershop in Kinston to come to Raleigh to speak in support of projects funded by CSBGs, he didn’t need to be asked twice. Under state law, legislators need to review the program annually to see how the money is being spent and decide whether to continue accepting the federal funds, which are then used to run projects to reduce poverty by one of 39 independent agencies located around the state.

“I think it’s a great program, and I think it’s needed for people who don’t have a chance, or sometimes when you don’t have hope,” Wiggins told legislators at a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Appropriations on Health and Human Services Committee last week.

Aiming at self-sufficiency

Most of the organizations that administer CSBG money are community action agencies, created during the 1960’s War on Poverty with the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act. The organizations are intended to address poverty-related issues at the community level: for example, running Head Start programs for pre-schoolers, operating food pantries, administering grants to help weatherize homes and providing home-energy assistance to poor families.

But job training and economic development are really at the heart of community action agencies, according to Gloria Williams-Wilson, who heads Nash Edgecombe-Economic Development in Rocky Mount. She said that last year, her program gave job training to members of 100 families, each with an average income of just over $5,000 per year.

Of that group, 82 family members were placed in jobs, which earned them an average income of $18,580 per worker. Williams-Wilson said 78 people worked in jobs that allowed them to become completely self-sufficient.

“There were 16 families that received subsidized rent. And because they went to work, they’re no longer receiving subsidized rent, and that was a savings of $38,648,” she told legislators. “Also there was reduction of food stamps because they went to work; that was a savings of $118,307. Also Medicaid. Because they went to work and received medical benefits, there was a reduction of $96,000.”

Williams-Wilson said many of her job trainees received certificates to become nurse’s assistants, welders and construction workers, or found jobs in the restaurant and hotel industries. She said her organization, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in June, has deep connections in the community that help people get into jobs.

“We work with a lot of the companies in the area to give them on-the-job training,” she said. “You’re able to stretch your dollars when you collaborate with the community.”

Williams-Wilson explained that the community connections are built, in part, because of the mandated structure of the agencies’ boards of directors: By law, they’re required to be comprised of one-third low-income community members, one-third public officials and up to one-third private-sector leaders, who often become advocates for the people served by the organization.

Temporary bump

In the coming fiscal year, the CSBG program will be worth about $25 million to the community programs around the state, an uptick from prior years, according to Verna Best, who works with the Office of Economic Opportunity in the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“There was a portion of the allocation from the previous year that was not expended, and in order to keep that money from reverting back to the federal level it has been placed into the [fiscal year] 2014 allocations,” Best said. Usually, the grants total between $16 million and $18 million.

Bernadette Yarborough from Martin Community Action said she hopes to use the coming year’s extra dollars to add to services for her clients and to serve 30 percent more people.

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