Program puts low-income Springs families on path to school, success

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The Gazette By: Barbara Cotter
June 13, 2011

Michael is no slacker. He spent three years in the Army, and received an associate's degree in culinary arts.

"I've worked hard all my life," said the 30-year-old Colorado Springs resident, who asked to be identified only by his first name.

But the restaurant work that was so much fun when he was in his 20s began to wear on him, and the pay made it hard for him to afford much more than rent and basic necessities.

He needed a new career, one that would provide him with greater satisfaction and, perhaps, greater earnings potential. With a budding interest in a more healthful lifestyle and sports therapy, Michael signed up to attend a Colorado Springs massage therapy school -- with a little financial help from his friends at Pikes Peak Community Action Agency.

Over the past nine years, PPCAA has helped almost 120 low- to lower-middle-class people fulfill their home ownership, educational or entrepreneurial dreams through a program that provides a 2-to-1 match on money they put into a special savings account. In the Individual Development Account (IDA) program, participants can save up to $1,000 and then get the maximum $2,000 match to use for one of three specific purposes: a first-time home purchase, a start-up or expansion of a business, or post-secondary education.

It may not be nearly enough to cover the costs of such expensive endeavors, but the program has loftier goals than just helping people pay for a dream.

"I think that the program itself is about the end result, in terms of being able to put down a down payment or pay for school or whatever it is our clients are trying to accomplish. But the meat of the program is learning to budget and make monthly deposits," says Michon Lartigue, the nonprofit's director of development. "Those things combined is what really makes the program truly impactful."

Helping the working poor achieve self-sufficiency is what community action agencies are all about. A product of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiative and the war on poverty, CAA's were created through the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act to carry out the mission at the local level with the help of community members and federal funds.

Over the years, the government made changes in the way CAA's were funded, and some -- included the one in Colorado Springs -- became nonprofits that could still received federal grants.

One federal grant was used to start an Individual Development Account program in Denver, and the Pikes Peak CAA piggybacked on it from about 2002 to 2004. The Pikes Peak agency created its own program in 2004 and used federal money to keep it going through most of 2010. But agency officials decided not continue using federal dollars because of the restrictions that came with them.

Last October, PPCAA started its own version one that has been funded through a pot of $150,000 that has come mostly from donations from foundations, corporations and individuals. With no more restrictions on the funds, PPCAA was able to expand the program to allow participants to put extra savings toward a car purchase, as long as they are saving toward either an education or starting a new business.

"With the auto asset, they can save up to $500, and they'll be matched with $1,000, so they'll have $1,500 to put toward a car," Lartigue says. "But they must be saving for one of the other two things."

Michael isn't saving for the auto, but since January, he's socked away $50 a month for his education and will keep going until he reaches the $1,000 limit. Then he'll take the matching $2,000 and put the total toward his $9,500 tuition. He also took part in another of PPCAA's four programs, Transitions to Independence, which gave him money to buy equipment and materials for his education.

He says he would have gone to school regardless of the PPCAA assistance, but the money has been a "massive help."

"It's tough to put yourself through school and pay rent," says Michael, who plans to become a licensed massage therapist and work with athletes.

As of May 31, the IDA program had 29 enrollees, and the agency hopes to have 50 by year's end. Participants must be employed and have a household income of no more than 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

"This is the future of fighting poverty: asset acquisition," says PPCAA chief executive Jim Faber. "The mission is self-sufficiency. We're trying to give them all the tools they need."

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