WNC families get help becoming self-sufficient

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The Times News (North Carolina; IDA)
By: Jessica Goodman
May 23, 2010

Jessica Cox Cervantes, 31, walked into Western Carolina Community Action in August 2004 by accident. She was looking for work and needed help paying her rent.

Six years later, Cervantes was recognized with the Lonnie D. Burton Achievement Award, presented to an individual who, through a community action program achieved a significant level of self-sufficiency and independence.

She owns her own home. She works with Telamon Migrant Head Start. In October, she remarried and she said recently her three kids voted for her husband, Raymond Cervantes, to adopt them.

"I went through all these trials to get to the good part," she said. "Not to say there won't be more trials, but it gives you perspective to have gone through them."

The self-sufficiency programs with Western Carolina Community Action are designed to help families or individuals become financially independent of social services.

The programs help low-income families and individuals become financially independent of social services. WCCA has programs for people at different backgrounds and skill and education levels.

"There's kind of a spectrum of self-sufficiency," said Sheryl Fortune, housing director for WCCA.

"They may need help to find a place to live," said Kathleen Carr, self-sufficiency coordinator. Or they may need help with education or finding employment, she explained. The programs are created for the individual or family to set their own goals.

WCCA was awarded American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding for a self-sufficiency program that ends Sept. 30. Thirty families are currently enrolled. The funding helps the families with rent assistance so they can work on their education to retrain for a job or to even look for work.

With the ARRA program and the basic self-sufficiency program, currently 73 families or individuals are enrolled. This year, $114,000 has been spent helping those families.

Help at 'perfect time'

At the time she walked into WCCA, Jessica recently moved to the area and was looking for a job. She heard a little of the self-sufficiency programs.

She had two kids at the time, and soon was expecting a third. She had applied for HUD Housing Choice Voucher, and around the time her ex-husband walked out on her family, she was approved for the voucher.

"It came at the most perfect time," she said.

She worked consistently through the Housing Choice Voucher Self Sufficiency programs and other services at WCCA to have her and her family be financially independent.

In May 2007, through a Pell grant, Jessica graduated with an associates degree in early childhood education from Blue Ridge Community College. At the time, she was raising three kids, owned her own business and was finishing school.

"My family and I, we made some great achievements through the help of WCCA," Jessica said.

"She is an example who took advantage of all the tools in our toolbox," Fortune said. "We helped her connect the dots."

Five-year turnaround

The HUD Self-sufficiency program is through the voucher program with about 30 families currently enrolled. Families contribute 30 percent of their earned income towards helping with the utility bills and rent or mortgage. The program has a five year time frame for service and a passive savings account associated with helping families save money to put towards education or a down payment on a house.

"Most people complete it before the five years," said David White, executive director of WCCA.

White added WCCA has produced 31 household in the last 10 years. None have been foreclosed on and they are all first time homeowners.

An Individual Development Account is an active savings account where individuals work to save money to start a small business, own a home or continue education. Currently 19 people are enrolled in the program.

"All of them, when they came to us, were either at the poverty line or below it," White said.

Jessica has three kids: Melissa, 10; Anthony, 8 and Mallory, 6. She has owned her home since August 2008. She, her husband and her eldest daughter were at the Grove Park Inn when she received her award.

"It was very nice to be recognized for reaching my goals," Jessica said.

In need of funding

The economy has hurt funding sources for the programs at WCCA.

"With the current economy, we have more people coming into this service," said Gwen Hill, public outreach coordinator for WCCA. 'We have to search for other funds."

The Community Foundation has helped with funding the direct client services for 30 families in the ARRA program.

"The good thing about the direct client services, we've not only helped keep people from foreclosures, but we've also moving people from homelessness to an apartment," said Deb Haight, community services director for WCCA.

To help raise some money, they are holding a fundraiser on Saturday, June 5. The "Sand in My Shoes" dinner and dance will be 6:30 to 11 p.m. at the Hendersonville Elks Lodge. Attire is casual. Tickets are $35 per person before May 30 and $40 after. It will feature a barbecue buffet, beach attire contest, hula demonstration and will feature the Caribbean Cowboys.

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