As the president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services (LSS), you see the community’s needs up close. What is your first step in assessing how to help?
I think the first step is always to look for where there are gaps. Where are people missing the things they need to live a productive, fulfilling life? Is LSS a good fit to address those gaps? Who in the community can we work with to fill them?
For example, the financial counselors in our Representative Payee Program noticed a growing number of homeless people among our clients needing our money management services. That vulnerable population has extra challenges in the areas of nutrition and hunger, illness and medical care, transportation, and incarceration. Last year we were able to institute a case management program for them using the proceeds of a grant from the City of Jacksonville. Our newly hired case managers have more time to devote to determining client needs, service planning and implementation, coordination with partner agencies, monitoring for treatment adherence, and crisis intervention.
Community partners have been a huge part of our successful rollout of new programs. We rarely try to do it all ourselves—nor should we. There are a lot of agencies out there, each working efficiently in their own area of expertise. When we each bring our individual agencies’ strengths to the table and work together, the sky really is the limit for what we can accomplish!
LSS provides many services including career and financial coaching; HIV/AIDS care; hunger relief; refugee assistance; and money management. Where do you see the most need currently?
The pandemic has put many people who used to be financially stable in precarious positions. People who have never needed help (some are our former donors) have shown up to receive food and other support.
We are seeing increased need across the board, but the number of people who need food has really skyrocketed. In 2020, we provided food to around 41,000 people. That was a 150 percent increase over the year before. Even before the pandemic, our pantry was open five days a week, Monday through Friday. Then, we would see about 50 people on an average day. When the pandemic came along, we started seeing those daily numbers increase to 75, to 100, and more. Some days it got close to 200.
We knew people needed additional help, so in July 2020 we partnered with Feeding Northeast Florida to begin a large-scale, monthly mobile food distribution so people could get additional fresh produce, dairy, and meat. Seeing one of those events really is striking. When you see people lining up at 7:00 a.m. for a distribution that doesn’t start until 10:00 and a line of hundreds of cars of people waiting for food a mile down Philips Highway—it really shows you the need that is out there.
We are also expanding our financial literacy programs to help people learn to budget and invest to attain financial stability. We couple that with employment counseling and job searches to provide them a comprehensive financial overhaul. Later this year, we are looking forward to welcoming back refugees and asylees who have been held back in the past.
Can you tell us a bit about some of your long-term programs, such as the Backpack Program?
The Backpack Program has been around since 2008. We know that there are lots of kids in our community whose main source of food is the free school meals they get during the week. Our goal is to get them food to take home for the weekend in a discrete way that doesn’t single them out and leave them open to bullying. We are in 15 schools in Duval and Clay Counties right now, and each week we deliver around 800 bags of snacks and child-friendly, easily prepared meals. We drop off the food, and it’s distributed by the teachers. A lot of them will slip it into participating students’ backpacks during recess, and none of their classmates ever need to know.
Our newest program is Steps 2 Success. We started this program in late 2017 in partnership with LISC Jacksonville, United Way of Northeast Florida, Edward Waters College, and Family Foundations. The program uses the Financial Opportunity Center (FOC) model, and while there are over 100 FOCs nationwide, ours was the first FOC in the state of Florida. While there are many programs out there that do just employment assistance, or just financial counseling, or just benefits enrollment, the FOC model is unique—it bundles all three into one comprehensive support system.
Helping someone find a better-paying job is great; however, unless you combine that with a solid foundation in managing personal finances, people often find themselves sliding back into financial distress. Steps 2 Success helps people build that solid foundation that comes from understanding their spending habits, looking at their expenses, creating a budget, building their credit, and ultimately, building wealth. As we see clients passing these good habits to their children and others in their family, we know the program is truly addressing generational poverty.