By Scott Mathys, Chief Executive Officer
Lewis County Opportunities is a Community Action Agency formed in 1965. We work with people in need to promote a higher quality of life in our community and envision a community where people are empowered to live safely and without economic barriers. We administer numerous programs which address immediate issues related to poverty or victimization, and other projects which offer a long term approach to the chronic impacts of poverty. The services we offer the community are selected by assessing local needs and identifying priority areas based upon this data. In 2016 we conducted a Community Assessment; which then set the foundation for the construction of our 2017-2020 Strategic Plan. We then developed a work plan based upon available Federal, State, and local grants, and private funding resources. In 2020, we will finish the next Community Assessment and renew the strategic plan accordingly.
Poverty is a multifaceted social issue. The prevalence of poverty in our community is influenced by the number and type of available jobs, matching worker skill sets to the job market, the natural resources and infrastructure present in our region that can foster business growth or stagnate it, cost of living relative to labor market, and even individual personal accountability. Barriers in any of these areas materialize into the visible symptoms of poverty; which can include deteriorating or outdated housing stock, aging infrastructure that falls out of serviceability, higher unemployment rates than statewide averages, lack of living wage employment options, increased individual and family reliance on social service programs, and sometimes loss of hope. Living under the pressure of financial insecurity can increase other stress factors that contribute toward the presence of domestic violence, increased anxiety and/or depression, and substance use disorders. Ultimately, poverty touches the entire community whether a person is identified as “low-income” or not.
I believe we can all agree that we shouldn’t sit back and allow our community to degrade. We don’t want to see our youth move far away to seek jobs. We don’t want to see our housing stock deteriorate or be abandoned. We don’t want to see people struggle to get by in their working years only to face financial distress during retirement. Lewis County Opportunities is one of many agencies trying to make a positive impact on the people in our community. We want to be a helping hand for people struggling with challenges; which can often be out of their control. Below is a synopsis of our combined efforts throughout the community in 2019.
In 2019 our annual budget was approximately $2.5 million. Those revenues came from Federal and State grants, fee for service programs, foundations, our own unrestricted revenues, and through contributions from the community. Our “workforce” is comprised of 12 board members, 34 paid staff, and 150 volunteers. It took a combination of over 60,000 paid work hours and 14,000 volunteer hours to provide our community services last year. Last year we said goodbye to some of our co-workers; a few leaving for retirement and others who took their skills into other employment pursuits. We miss them and their dedication. Those departures brought in new faces to help fulfill our mission.
"The following are raw statistics of our services in 2019. Please look beyond the numbers because each number is a face in our community who needed help. You see these faces every day but may not know their internal struggle. They are the faces of men, women, and children; our neighbors and friends."
In 2019, we helped provide community programs to 6,509 people. Poverty isn’t gender-specific, but trending does tend to show an impact on females more than males; evident by females making up 57% of our consumer base. Poverty doesn’t discriminate by age and is felt throughout the entire age spectrum; evident by seniors making up 12% of our consumer base and children making up 35%. In addition, last year 25% of our consumer base reported some level of disability. Aside from the general demographics, below are broad categorical direct service breakdowns:
Food Security: In 2019, food pantries located in New Bremen, Harrisville, Port Leyden, Croghan, and Copenhagen provided the equivalent of 49,587 meals to families. The buying power of the
Food Bank of Central New York was essential in this effort. Likewise, the
Northern New York Community Foundation was vital to the process by providing matching funds as well as additional contributions to the food pantries during the year. In addition, United Way of Northern New York comes through each year with an annual food drive. Many other groups in our community help the pantries out with food drives as well. We are appreciative of all those efforts!
Shelter: Safe and affordable housing can be a challenge for families in poverty. In 2019 Opportunities helped over 1,300 families in Jefferson and Lewis counties with rental assistance through Housing Choice Vouchers. That assistance totaled more than $8.6 million in landlord subsidies between both counties. Even if a family has a place to stay, the housing costs don’t end there. Heat bills can erode the monthly budget drastically. Because of this, Opportunities provides weatherization services to help make homes more energy efficient. In 2019, we increased energy efficiency to 50 homes. This included replacing windows, furnace clean and tunes, and adding insulation in walls, attics, and crawl spaces. Funds for these services came from a grant through NYS Homes and Community Renewal. There are some members of our community who have no place at all to call home. We have a Homeless Apartment in partnership with
Lewis County DSS to help with this concern. Last year that apartment temporarily housed 24 people for a collective 596 bed nights.
Safety: People should not have to live in fear of physical, mental, financial, or sexual abuse. Unfortunately, such problems do exist in Lewis County despite its reputation as a safe place to live and raise a family. To address victimization related to domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and other crimes, Opportunities has a Victim Services program, which served 299 people in 2019. Under this program, the agency operates a safe dwelling where families can begin the next chapter in their lives; with 178 protected nights utilized during the year. Other services include operating a 24/7 crisis hotline, providing many counseling services, completing orders of protection, and assisting victims with restitution claims. The program maintained a healthy presence in several local school districts with “Safe Dates” and “Safer Smarter Kids” evidence-based education. The program also assists with a joint satellite Child Advocacy Center project spearheaded by our neighboring cohort-agency, the Victims Assistance Center of Jefferson County. Our Victim Services program is funded through the NYS Office of Victim Services, Office of Children and Family Services, Division of Criminal Justice Services, our local Department of Social Services, and private foundations. If you or someone you know has been a victim and needs help, please contact us at our crisis hotline number, 315-376-HELP, which is available 24 hours a day.
Transportation: Getting to and from work is as important as having a job in the first place; especially in a rural county. Sometimes car repairs can become costly enough to jeopardize maintaining a job. Therefore, Opportunities has programs to aid with paying for those costly repairs. In 2019, the agency helped pay for 57 vehicle repairs and/or gas cards. These were made possible by the United Way of Northern New York and the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), and unrestricted revenues from the proceeds of the Opportunity Knocks Thrift Store. In addition to a reliable vehicle, having safe and proper fitting car seats should not be something reserved only to families able to afford them. Because of that, Opportunities had 4 certified Car Seat Technicians in 2019 who provided 80 car seats to help our littlest county residents. This program was supported by Child Passenger Safety and CSBG grants.
Financial Security: Many people in poverty are eager to take control of their money instead of being controlled by financial pressures. We provide money management tips and face-to-face meetings with people to help build a better relationship with their money. These resources help people build budgets, learn to live within their means, and develop essential money management skills. The agency also provided Rep Payee services for 22 people. Our thrift store, “Opportunity Knocks” is a great resource for volunteerism and a place to buy lightly used items at a great price to stretch your own budget. The proceeds from sales also generate funds for services that grants don’t cover.
The items briefly discussed above are just some of our many services. If you or someone you know could benefit from our assistance or want to know more about our other services, please “Like” our Facebook page, call us at 315-376-8202, or visit us on the web at www.lewiscountyopportunities.com. We are here to help.
We thank our employees, board members, volunteers, and the community for helping with our mission. Without the combined efforts of everyone, Opportunities wouldn’t be able to make such an impact to our community.
Scott Mathys, CEO