BY JENNY GOLDSBERRY
How it works
The center is different from a welfare safety net. It pairs families with resource integration coaches that help them on a case-by-case basis and equip them with a plan that includes empowerment and hope.
Jamie (not her real name) was a single mom of four kids, but she was sure she didn’t need any help. She had just gotten out of an abusive relationship, but she did not want a handout. At the time of her separation, she was living in her friend’s basement. That Christmas of 2018, she went to the community Christmas party and met Charlie.
Charlie was a resource integration coach from the newly minted Prosperity Center of Excellence in Weber County. He noticed Jamie and told her about the services he could provide for her family, yet Jamie was unconvinced the center was meant for her. Luckily, Charlie was persistent, and Jamie’s family became one of the center’s original families.
Melissa Freigang is the founding director of the center because of growing up with parents who were actively working to break the cycles of intergenerational poverty in her family. Melissa is the first in her family to graduate from college. Her parents worked two and three jobs during her childhood to provide her the opportunity to develop her talent. She became a gymnast for the University of Utah. The “full scholarship” wasn’t making ends meet. Administrators on the sidelines guided her to Pell grants, study hall, and textbooks. Melissa says she owes her debt-free graduation to these individuals who provided supportive services. Then, she became one herself.
First, she was an academic coordinator at Gonzaga University. There, she gave back to the student athletes, paying forward what others had done for her. Later, she was the Associate Athletics Director/Senior Woman Administrator for Weber State University, performing similar services for student athletes. Ever since, she’s taken on a variety of roles in government and industry to help others in need build employability skills, navigate resources, and access social capital to work their way out of poverty. Since June 2019, she’s overseen starting up the Prosperity Center of Excellence.
Notably, the center is different from a welfare safety net. Instead, their approach is the Integrated Community Action Now, or ICAN model, that is focused on root causes, customization, and a comprehensive focus on each child in the household by incorporating two generational strategies of building social capital of parents to break the cycles of intergenerational poverty. The center pairs families with people like Charlie, who integrate resources on a case-by-case basis. Families ask themselves “What do I Need?” to build an action plan toward Family Resilience and “WINs” generates the growth mindset, empowerment, and hope. Each ICAN partner agency that provides resources and services has an established person who is the human connection for these families. Melissa knows firsthand that this approach works because it’s the same approach that helped her break out of her intergenerational poverty. It wasn’t the Pell grants that helped her, but the administrator who told her about them and guided her on how to access them.
Brigham Young Sociology professor Dr. Ben Gibbs says poverty is often misunderstood. He serves as an advisory committee member to the State Intergenerational Poverty Welfare Reform Commission and also as a member of its Research Subcommittee. He understands some of the root causes of poverty and states, “We all might think that those in poverty need to work harder, because we’ve all worked hard. However, we all, like Melissa, likely have had someone who helped us along the way. Many successful people credit their rise to mentors who inspired them, coaches who pushed them, or even a parent who sacrificed everything to give their child an opportunity. So, really, social capital can make the difference for a family trying to escape poverty.”
For instance, Jamie had no family in Utah. She did have her friend, but she admitted that Charlie introduced her to a wealth of knowledge. For every single thing she needed help with, there were resources available.
A resource integration coach partners with the adults in a trauma-informed way to create multiple opportunities for each child. When a child grows up in poverty, they can experience what is called an adverse childhood experience or might live in adverse community environments (ACEs). ACEs are traumatic for the child. Suddenly, they are in constant survival mode. Ben’s research shows that a child with a high ACE score is three times more likely to be suspended from school. The trauma affects them in their adulthood too. They go on to have a troubled relationship with the workforce. Remarkably, these events can even take a toll on their health and future health outcomes. As a result, adults with high ACE scores tend to have a shorter lifespan.
On the other hand, a quality relationship with a parent and non-parental adult is a huge counter-ACE. These resource integration coaches and community partners have a much bigger impact than meets the eye. Jamie understands that now, because she is one. Just over a year ago, she was invited to apply and subsequently got the job at the center. Now, she is reciprocating the treatment she received. The center never treated her like a number, client, or piece of paper. She does the same. Any and every phone call to Jamie will always be answered. Her families know they can rely on her, no matter the time of day.
There are eleven counties identified in Utah with the highest rates of intergenerational poverty. Most of them are rural, but as of 2016, Weber County is one of two urban counties with the highest rate. In fact, 10% of children in the county – roughly 7,200 children – are experiencing intergenerational poverty. An additional 23% of the county’s children are currently experiencing poverty and are at risk of becoming parents to children who will become additional children experiencing intergenerational poverty.
The county has plenty of resources to combat intergenerational poverty, Weber is rich with non-profit and government providers. As ICAN helps more families become resilient and stable, the center’s goal is to make the community just as resilient. Already, they’ve seen great success. At the height of the pandemic, the center mobilized with partners to protect the homeless population from the COVID-19 virus. When an outbreak of the virus occurred at the Lantern House and Ogden Rescue Mission, the community team kept the infected quarantined within the shelter and moved healthy families and single females to hotels for safety. Thanks to the combined efforts of the shelters, Hope Clinic, Weber-Morgan Health Department, Youth Futures, and off-duty Ogden firefighters who the center hired as part time staff to fill vacant Lantern House positions and Melissa, the county bounced back from the pandemic.
Community partners, like those mentioned above, help families weather adversity. A flat tire or root canal might ruin your day, but it could send another family who is struggling into homelessness. Any service provider who could help make a potential family emergency less expensive or simpler is welcome to coordinate with the center. Every partner decides the extent of their partnership.
Melissa recognizes that her approach is novel. At the same time, she knows it works. Her human-centered design makes every family’s experience custom to them. While many are not used to the words “government” and “innovation” working in the same sentence, they work at the Prosperity Center of Excellence.
Today Jamie lives with her four kids in a home they purchased this June. She’s proud to be one of the first families the center helped and now one of its success stories. Currently, there are 170 active participants working to become just like her.