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New LARS executive director to implement strategic plan

Laurel Leader
"I really want to be able to help a whole community," says LARS Executive Director Leah Paley

Under new leadership, Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services staff have created a strategic plan they hope will promote client self-sufficiency and eventually allow the nonprofit to pursue advocacy work at the state level.

Executive Director Leah Paley officially took the helm of LARS, which provides relief to Laurel residents confronted with financial difficulties, in May. With four years of experience at the organization, Paley has also worked as LARS' deputy director and homeless and emergency services director.

That experience with clients made Paley the best candidate to take over former Executive Director Lori Proietti's position, LARS Emergency Services and Community Relations Director Stephanie Guzman said.

"It was one of those unspoken things where everyone just was in agreement that she was the right person for the job," Guzman said of Paley. "The great thing about her is that she's worked on the crisis center so she's met with clients; she knows what the issues are."

While Paley said she enjoyed her past roles at LARS, she looks forward to using her knowledge in community organizing and social action, which she studied while getting her master's in social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

"It's exciting to me to be in this role and really be more at the macro-level rather than that micro-level of doing the one-on-one individual, which is very fulfilling for sure, but it's also very frustrating," Paley said. "You feel like, 'Yes, I touched this one person,' but I really want to be able to help a whole community."

LARS Board of Directors President Don Ausherman said while the main goal is to continue to provide current services — which include a food pantry, employment support, transitional and permanent housing and rental assistance — he also wants to find more long-term solutions for clients.

"Our resources have been heavily utilized towards crisis, which is obviously pretty important," Ausherman said. "If somebody is in a crisis situation, we'd like to be able to help them, but we'd like to get to a point when we can take more of our clients and allow them to reach self-sufficiency."

The strategic plan will standardize the process of client care in the LARS crisis center, where residents go for immediate solutions, and establish a program that would help clients become independent of its services, Paley said.

Many clients return each year, Paley said. She said it's frustrating, but if funding only allows LARS to offer clients temporary support, the organization is part of the problem.

Guzman is currently working to create a crises center policy manual with guidelines for evaluating cases.

"Part of what the strategic plan will do is provide us with the framework that we need to really provide effective case management to the clients we're seeing," Guzman said.

LARS assessed 1,871 individual clients in fiscal year 2015, with 632 clients receiving services from LARS for the first time.

Although LARS has a diverse portfolio of grants and donations it receives, Paley said some weaknesses in funding became evident while developing the plan.

"You're not guaranteed a grant every year for the rest of your existence, so that's a little scary," Paley said. "We have challenges, but we are coming up with solutions that we hope will address some of our fears."

By creating a client database and standardizing practices, Paley said she hopes a new evidence-based approach to crisis management and creating a better client database will attract much-needed funding for high-demand services.

LARS provided 147 clients and families with a total of $52,740 in rental assistance in fiscal year 2015. The food pantry also distributed 11,025 bags of food worth about $220,500.

New funding would allow LARS to hire a new staff member who would pursue a more long-term goal of the strategic plan to advocate on the county and state level, Paley said.

"Advocacy is in our title Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, and we do a lot of advocacy," Paley said, "educating clients ... and helping them to self-advocate or try to help advocate on their behalf at a more local level."

But Paley said this isn't enough.

The new executive director wants to spread LARS's revamped mission across the state to make necessary policy changes for a population she described as underemployed, underinsured and having insufficient benefits.

"Our goal is to help individuals who are in crisis and want to achieve stability and long-term self-sufficiency, helping to give them the tools that they need to succeed," Paley said.

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