A lush garden erupting with organic vegetables, food displays that rival an upscale grocer's and sleek weatherization projects that slash energy bills — these may not seem like the typical projects of an agency that aids the poor.
Yet these concepts are the reason the Community Action Council was honored by the county Tuesday with the first human-rights award it had ever given to an organization.
CAC, a longtime county nonprofit, aims to blend its assistance to low-income residents with top-flight customer service, organizers say. This approach was launched when Bita Dayhoff took the helm in October 2009, and she is credited with making sure this philosophy has expanded and been imparted to all employees.
"Bita is amazing," said C. Vernon Gray, administrator of the Howard County Human Rights Commission. "Her organization deals in humanitarian crises every day. Yet they are doing a fantastic job of offering equitable treatment to all residents, regardless of their status in life."
The commission is an appointed board that has been recognizing community leaders for five years. Carol Beatty, executive director of The Arc of Howard County, received an individual award the same evening for her leadership of the 50-year-old organization, which serves as an advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Dayhoff has made incredible progress in a relatively short time as CAC president, Gray said. He listed accomplishment after accomplishment as reasons for selecting the organization — which handles food, energy and housing emergencies, crisis intervention, and oversees the local centers of a national preschool program.
"She started a community garden, increased the number of food pantries from six to 12 and has gotten national accreditation for the three Head Start sites," he said, rattling off a few of the sizable projects Dayhoff has tackled in just over two years.
"Since the epicenter of what we do is giving and serving, once we decided to improve service delivery we could strategize the programs that best suit the community's needs," said Dayhoff, who was CAC's vice president for over 20 years before assuming her current position. Before that, the Clarksville resident was a finance officer at a private school in Olney who longed to be part of the world of community service.
In fiscal year 2011, which ended June 30, CAC came to the aid of 16,000 people through its food bank, provided utility assistance to more than 4,600 households, prevented more than 430 evictions, served 264 children in Head Start and employed 20 teenagers, Dayhoff said.
The number of food bank clients nearly doubled from 6,600 in fiscal year 2009 to 12,600 in fiscal year 2010, and then increased by another 27 percent this year.
CAC oversees the Howard County Food Bank on Route 108 in eastern Columbia and 11 other food pantries operated at various churches around the county. It also handles energy and eviction emergencies, and oversees Head Start, a federally funded preschool for eligible 3- to 5-year-olds.
"I've seen inertia behind Head Start in the state and the country," said Lisa Davis, coordinator of early childhood programs for the county's public schools. "Howard County is ahead of many counties in the state, thanks to Bita and her educational director, Linda Behsudi."
For many years, children got either half-day pre-kindergarten or half-day Head Start programming, even though they qualified for both, Davis said. Now a child enrolled in the morning, half-day Head Start program at the Dasher Green Head Start, for example, can stay on for the afternoon half-day, pre-K program there.
This collaboration saves parents the anxiety of figuring out how to transport their children between two programs at two locations and allows the same teacher to continue working with students, she said, crediting Dayhoff's dogged determination for bringing the collaboration about.
"Bita understands the pulse of the community and can step back and see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together," Davis said. Dayhoff also advocated for renovations at Atholton High School, located in Columbia, to incorporate space for the nearby Tubman Head Start, she added.
"She gives her all in all aspects of her life, now more than ever," Davis said, referring to Dayhoff's recent loss of her husband of 27 years, Steve Dayhoff, who died suddenly Oct. 8. The community rallied behind her and her two teenage children when she returned to work after a 10-day absence.
"I've been focused on this work from the very beginning, and after I let reality begin to settle in, I needed to be back in the office," Dayhoff said, adding that she is grateful for the support..
Grace Morris, executive director of the Columbia Housing Corporation, echoed Davis' sentiment.
"Bita is passionate about what she does, and that just comes across," she said. "She takes more of a holistic approach. Some people have a tendency to stay in their lane, but she crosses over and sees CHC and other agencies as partners in a continuum."
This perspective has also allowed Dayhoff to more than quintuple volunteer hours, from a value of $16,000 in fiscal year 2010 to $83,000 in fiscal year 2011, according to CAC data.
Morris said Dayhoff's 22-plus years with CAC has uniquely positioned her "to see where we've been and ask where we can go."
"She comes to us with partnership opportunities," Morris said of the nonprofit founded in 1967 that owns and manages affordable housing units in Howard County. "We're both touching the same clientele and trying to affect change."
Dayhoff really "went to bat" to get funding for a state-administered energy conservation and weatherization program that has helped 150 of CHC's tenants save about $700 each in annual energy costs, she said.
She also helped bring about a summer employment program that created jobs for 20 low-income youths, which she hopes to repeat next summer, as well as a summer food program that supplied bag lunches to kids to fill the void left when free and reduced-price meals ended with the school year.
"Bita is very committed to making things happen. She's a doer," Morris said.
Dayhoff said her staff often comments that she gets a certain look in her eye that causes them to ask, "What are we going to do now?"
She laughed briefly and then became serious.
"I'm proud to say we've never missed a beat, despite the impact of the recession, because we have community partners and we leverage our resources to achieve our goals," she said. "I have felt challenged, but it hasn't been a challenge I wasn't willing to take on."