Anti-poverty groups seek private funding

Without a ride to work, it would have been a lot more difficult for Ronika Ford to get her first part-time job working at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Educational Center a few miles from her Annapolis home.

Ford, 18, worked for two summers mulching trails and testing water quality in the West River as part of a youth summer jobs program at the Anne Arundel County Community Action Agency. She didn't have a car, but the program provided training, transportation to and from the work site and free lunches — offerings that Ford said were essential to her success at the Millersville job.

Officials at the agency, which has traditionally relied on government funding, have grown concerned over the past few years about their ability to maintain that range of services. Groups across the region with similar missions have watched grants decline amid record need, and are increasingly looking for private support, through fundraisers and partnerships with companies.

"Any cuts would cripple us," said Kinaya Sokoya, CEO of the Anne Arundel Community Action Agency. "Agencies like ours had to take a really hard look and say, we can't continue to depend on public funds. One minute they like us and say we're doing good work and the next minute we're not viewed in such a favorable light."

Founded in 1965, the agency — Anne Arundel's designated anti-poverty group — was born out of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" legislation, and now provides free social services to thousands of county residents annually. The agency runs six Head Start centers and offers programming for first-time home buyers, foreclosure negation, energy assistance and youth outreach.

The agency is one of 17 members of the Maryland Community Action Partnership, part of a nationwide network of more than 1,000 similar community outreach agencies, including locations in Baltimore and Howard counties. In Baltimore City, similar services are provided through a partnership administered by city government.

A. Antonio Coffield, Sr., executive director of the Dundalk-based Community Assistance Network Inc., which serves Baltimore County, has also increased its fundraising in recent years.

At an October fundraising breakfast, the group raised a little over $10,000, "which is huge for us," said Coffield. The group, which operates three homeless shelters across the county in addition to a food pantry, has also seen an influx of residents seeking assistance.

"We've been bombarded because of the economy and the strain it's having on individual families," said Coffield. "And we're seeing middle class families — for the first time, they're experiencing financial challenges."

Now a freshman at Benedict College in South Carolina majoring in early childhood development, Ford works part-time at a frozen yogurt shop, a job she said she might not have been able to secure without the experience she gained through the Anne Arundel County Community Action Agency.

"When I started, I didn't know anything about the environment," she said. "I learned a lot of skills that you can use in life. Everybody shared their ideas and it was teamwork."

In 2005, the Anne Arundel County Community Action Agency served about 3,400 people across the county. Since then, the number of people using its services has tripled to more than 10,000. At Thanksgiving, the agency partnered with three grocery stores to provide 35 families with holiday meals.

Since 2008, Anne Arundel County has contributed $200,000 annually. The city of Annapolis funded the agency $100,000 annually in fiscal years 2008 through 2010. In the last two fiscal years, however, the City Council voted to halve its community grant funding, dropping funding to the agency to $50,000 annually.

The city has also provided funds through the federally funded Community Services Block Grant, in amounts which fell from $18,470 in fiscal year 2010 to $8,983 in fiscal 2012.

Annapolis City Alderman Kenneth I. Kirby, who chairs the council's Housing and Human Welfare Committee, said the federal funds that are distributed to approximately 25 organizations annually have "steadily decreased" in the past couple of years.

"If they don't get their heads together in Washington, this year we'll be down to $300,000 if we're lucky," said Kirby.

Bita Dayhoff, executive director of the Community Action Network of Howard County, said despite the county's reputation as an affluent place, the agency has seen an influx of people seeking its services. They include Head Start, financial management classes and a new program aimed at helping families accumulate savings.

"If a family's income is not sufficient enough to build a savings, any small incident like a sick child is really going to throw the financial picture of that family in the negative," Dayhoff said.

In Howard, the group operates a food bank that served 16,000 people last year. About 75 percent of its funding comes from the government, with the remainder from private donations. Less than three years ago, as much as 90 percent of the group's funding coming from the federal, state and local government.

Coffield, who runs the Baltimore County group, is planning a fundraising gala in the spring.

"One of our goals for the new year is to really amp up our fundraising," said Coffield. "A lot of people don't know we exist. We're doing our best to show what we do and why we do it and how we do it."