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Coalition is building to fight poverty


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A coalition in north-central Montana is seeking volunteers to help plan for long-term solutions to poverty.

The group is building teams from an 11-county region to assist in the planning and implementation of a 10-year program to bring relief to destitute families. The Northcentral Montana Community Ventures Coalition was formed in the fall of 2001, and has been responsible for identifying ways to improve the quality of life among low-income people.

In June the coalition will submit a grant proposal to the Northwest Area Foundation. If the foundation approves the plan, the coalition will receive up to $13 million over a 10-year period. The money will be used in a seven-part plan to address poverty at a regional level.

Craig Erickson of Bear Paw Development Corp. said the program will bring economic relief to northern Montana.

"There are a lot of poor people in this region," he said. "Given our isolation, the unemployment, the low wages and the housing issues, we're a region that is in distress. We would be foolish not to take this opportunity."

The coalition is seeking volunteers to serve on strategic planning groups, according to a press release from the organization.

"We are recruiting members to join strategy teams drawn from ... across the Hi-Line to design a new future for Northcentral Montana," the statement said.

The Northwest Area Foundation is a nonprofit organization actively involved in community-enhancement projects in a region spanning eight states in the Northwest. Seated in St. Paul, Minn., the foundation has assets of $426 million, according to its Web site. The foundation was started in 1934 by Louis W. Hill, the son of railroad magnate James J. Hill.

A mission statement says the foundation "provides expertise and other resources, focusing on long-term poverty reduction ... by forming partnerships with communities working to develop long-term solutions to poverty."

Through the Community Ventures projects, the foundation allocated $600,000 to each of four areas to develop and submit a proposal for a 10-year partnership with the foundation. Rural parts of Idaho, North Dakota and Iowa and Montana were selected by the foundation to participate, based on census information. One and possibly two of the regions will be approved for the partnership, according to the foundation's Web page. Which of the regions will receive the grant will be decided in September.

The 11-county region of north-central Montana is the largest of the four regions. The area includes Blaine, Cascade, Chouteau, Glacier, Hill, Judith Basin, Liberty, Phillips, Pondera, Teton and Toole counties as well as the Blackfeet, Rocky Boy's and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.

The Northcentral Montana Community Ventures Coalition was formed to oversee the use of the money and to develop realistic approaches to addressing poverty at a regional level.

Erickson said he is optimistic Montana will be selected to receive the grant.

"I like to think that if we present a thoughtful, creative and realistic plan that we will be funded." he said.

Exactly how the money would be allocated within the region will be decided in the next four to five months, Erickson said.

Kate McMahon, a Great Falls consultant for the coalition, said Monday that the organization has identified seven general goals for the partnership with the foundation.

"Build and live in a sound and healthy regional economy.

"Identify, learn about, and celebrate the spirituality and uniqueness within our regional community.

"Provide access to quality health and wellness services to everyone in North Central Montana.

"Ensure that safe and affordable housing and home ownership are available.

"Develop educational opportunities and resources that are readily available and affordable to people at all educational levels.

"Provide families and communities with the resources and skills necessary to build and maintain healthy families.

"Ensure access to affordable, accessible, and convenient transportation."

The 80-member coalition had divided into seven task forces to focus on each of the goals. The coalition is seeking additional volunteers interested in participating , McMahon said.

The task forces consist of diverse cross-sections of the population to obtain a balanced perspective about poverty in the region, the consultant said. Participants include health care workers, educators and low-income families.

"The idea is to use the community to create an understanding of poverty, determine the issues, establish teams and create a vision," McMahon said.

Two people from each task force meet together once a month to coordinate their efforts, McMahon said.

A 12-member board called the steering committee oversees the coalition, and Strategic Learning Resources, a consulting firm, has been hired to assist.

Erickson and Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development, serve on the steering committee.

Coalition meetings have led to increased cooperation among communities, Erickson said.

"The best thing about this is that people from different communities are sitting down at the same table to discuss the challenges we share," he said.


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