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Dhanraj's ability to unify serves those in need in Howard County

ConservationPTA

Vidia Dhanraj's self-described nosiness led her to fight poverty in Howard County.

She served on PTA boards for years while her daughters were in school, always wanting to know what was happening. When they graduated from Hammond High School, the work ended but her desire to help others remained.

"Once you get involved in that respect, you see what the community is about," the North Laurel resident said. "I wanted to know where resources are, who needs what. That's always been an interest of mine."

So Dhanraj left a consulting career in 2011 to become the coordinator of community partnerships for the Howard County Department of Citizen Services. Her responsibilities include leading the Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency and several programs, such as the Plan to End Homelessness.

That program is helping build an apartment complex in North Laurel that will have approximately 30 efficiency units for homeless residents. The site, due to open in spring 2015, also will have a resource center.

"Will it eliminate homelessness?" said Jack Kavanagh, the former Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency chairman and director of Howard County Department of Corrections said. "No. But I think it'll put a great dent in it."

Dhanraj's work — which earned her the Howard County government's 2013 Employee of the Year award in September — requires her to implement a different approach in how to help people in poverty.

The old mindset, says Lois Mikkila, Howard County director of citizen services, was to hand people a check. Now, there is more emphasis on programs that teach them how to find jobs, earn promotions and better save money.

The new mindset began in 2008, when the Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency was created, said Mikkila. The desire was to take a big-picture look at the factors that create poverty.

"In our economic climate, needs are increasing, two-fold, three-fold, all the time," Dhanraj said. "Our resources are shrinking. We are pressed to figure out how to bring about sustainable change for families."

Dhanraj was a consultant for the Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency before being hired full-time in 2011. Her colleagues have been impressed by her work, especially her ability to bring together different department heads and work out solutions.

Kavanagh admitted that sometimes each department head is only concerned with their "own agenda," but that Dhanraj "can cut through all that.

"She has a great way of communicating with people," Kavanagh said. "I can't say enough about the skill set that it takes to work with the various personalities. She brought an energy and passion and focus that was contagious."

The Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency's main focus now is the Getting Ahead program, an eight-week, 15-session class that examines causes of poverty and the resources available to get out.

Ronnya McIver, one of 14 students in the class, described the experience as eye-opening.

"I started off working middle class but got laid off," she said. "I didn't see it coming. I went down into poverty. I guess I didn't pay attention to how to save and stay away from high-interest credit cards. They have a lot of training I didn't know the county even had for free.

"The group is helping me. It gives me motivation and hope, just listening to members of the group supporting each other and learning I'm not alone."

The classes also help Howard County better serve the people who need it.

"One of the things that happens in the human service field, we start to feel like we know what people need because there's been a lot to come through the door," Mikkila said. "We may or may not be right. One of the things the board is excited about in the Getting Ahead groups is it's that opportunity to hear the voices of people going through these situations and what are the barriers they're facing."

Added Kavanagh: "How can we do a better job, for lack of a better term, providing customer service? We're listening a little bit better. I think that helps us change how we operate and sets policies."

Dhanraj uses the feedback to plan changes to the programs. The improvement efforts are never-ending.

"We're really anxious to share the model with the judicial system and law enforcement," Dhanraj said. "And we want to get more Getting Ahead groups. There's some really good collaborations that are getting perfected. I think that's going to be exciting."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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