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Building a fight on poverty


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Tim Leeds Havre Daily News [email protected]

With the successful creation of a local transit system under its belt, a poverty reduction organization is continuing to work on tweaking that system and on its other efforts. “We've been working really, really hard on the transit system, but we have other projects that we haven't neglected,” Barb Stiffarm, executive director of Opportunity Link Inc., said in an interview Wednesday. The transit system, the creation of which Opportunity Link spearheaded, took its maiden voyage Monday. Buses ran routes through Havre and to Fort Belknap and Box Elder and back and the communities in between, as well as taking passengers from those routes to Great Falls and back Tuesday and Thursday. That is the culmination of work that started as early as 1999, when a group of north-central Montanans began researching an application for a grant to fund a poverty reduction organization. Lack of public transportation was identified as one of the greatest barriers to fighting poverty in the Region. The Montana group was one of four regions selected from 40 to provide a poverty reduction plan. Several years of research resulted in the group creating a 124-page report with a 500-page appendix and a 30-minute documentary on poverty in the region to detail its plan of action. Montana and a group in Idaho were the two programs initially selected for funding by the Northwest Area Foundation, a funding organization created by the family of James J. Hill, the founder of the Great Northern Railway, now operating after several business mergers as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The foundation awarded $12 million in a 10-year grant in 2003 to Montana's Opportunity Link, then called the North Central Montana Community Ventures Coalition, and $11 million to a group in Idaho, now called Partners in Prosperity. The Montana grant was provided to fund programs to reduce poverty in an 11-county region including Blaine, Cascade, Chouteau, Glacier, Hill, Judith Basin, Liberty, Phillips, Pondera, Teton and Toole counties and the Blackfeet, Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy Indian reservations. Stiffarm said the Northwest Area Foundation's anti-poverty grants in 2003 it now is partnered with seven anti-poverty organizations was its first work in creating regional poverty reduction organizations. The first few years of setting programs up included both sides the poverty reduction organizations and Northwest Area Foundation figuring out how to make things work. Part of that included a high level of turnover at Opportunity Link, with several executive directors coming in and out over the first few years and some turnover on its board of directors as well. Stiffarm said she thinks there was some misconception about what the poverty reduction organization would do after the initial planning stages. People talked about making sure technology was available in the schools and expected Opportunity Link to take its grant funding to buy computers for all eighth-graders which was not the purpose of the organization, she said. Instead, the purpose of Opportunity Link was to act as a facilitator, to help local organizations plan and fund activities to help reduce poverty. Opportunity Link has been working in that direction, forming partnerships to help find ways to reduce poverty, increase employment, stimulate the economy and benefit the lifestyle of the region. Stiffarm said one result of that has just been released a study on the available labor force written by Patrick Barkey of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. That study can be used by local organizations both in trying to attract business and industry to the area and in writing grant applications to seek funding for projects. Stiffarm said it, essentially, is a tool any grant-writer would love to have. Stiffarm, who joined Opportunity Link in 2007, said the organization has been busy in the last two years. Perhaps the most visible was working to get the busing system running in the area Opportunity Link is the lead agency in that venture, which includes partnerships with Hill County, Blaine County, the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy's Indian reservations, Northern Montana Healthcare and Montana State University-Northern. Opportunity Link wrote grant applications resulting in $75,000 in initial funding through the Montana Department of Transportation and $227,000 through the federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and is pursuing more grants for the program. Jim Lyons was hired in June by Opportunity Link as director of the transit system. The poverty reduction organization also has been holding other high-profile activities in its work to reduce poverty. Opportunity Link, after helping with an effort to bring programs in alternative energy to the Montana University System in coordination with Idaho's Partners in Prosperity and Idaho State University's Energy Systems Technology and Education Center, began holding training sessions and seminars in the region about energy-related careers in the state. Stiffarm said the “Energizing our Workforce” workshops were very well-attended. “We had a good turnout on it,” she said. “We had good presenters, good information.” She added that Opportunity Link is still talking to many people interested in receiving more information on the topic and about other people who heard about the presentations and would like the workshops run again. Opportunity Link also is partnering with the District IV Human Resources Development Council in the Self-Help Housing Program, where participants are required to help build their and other participants' homes. Stiffarm said that program not only helps get people into their own houses, it trains them in useful skills and helps reduce the cost of the housing typically some $20,000. “That's a pretty good down payment,” she said. One factor of the program is allowing people to work off fines assessed in the courts as community service that has helped some of those people, as well as the people building their own houses, she said. Some of the people participating in a community service capacity have come back and joined the program to build their own homes, and one person who did the service ended up hired by a local contractor after learning how to do the work, Stiffarm said. Other programs Opportunity Link has worked on include creating the Youth Build program with MSU-Northern and Stone Child College, in which at-risk students will build houses for people on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation; Workin' it Out” seminars in which participants learn skills to use in a job application and interview and on the job once they are hired; and work in teaching people about credit use, resolving credit problems and establishing budgeting and savings habits. That includes partnering with Neighbor Works Montana in its Individual Development Account program, which provides training and a savings program including matching funds to help people make a down payment and pay closing costs on their first home; and Montana Making Sen$e, a program in which AmeriCorps volunteers teach money-management skills.


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