Published in Nonprofits

Q&A: Michelle Williamson, Community Action Agency of South Central Michigan

BY Sunday, December 09, 2018 03:52pm

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, not a war on those in poverty, said Michelle Williamson, the CEO of Community Action Agency of South Central Michigan (CAASCM). Johnson’s plan of attack included legislation written at the federal level that resulted in the formation of Community Action Agencies throughout the United States. In Michigan, 28 CAAs cover the entire state and provide services to mostly low-income residents. On Jan. 1, the CAASCM will begin serving as the interim provider for Kalamazoo County after its proposal was accepted by the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners. The group currently serves 10,000 residents annually in Barry, Branch, Calhoun and St. Joseph counties with an annual budget of $18 million, the largest source of which is the federal government. Williamson spoke to MiBiz about the organization and the role it hopes to play in continuing the fight against poverty.

Describe some of the programming the Community Action Agency of South Central Michigan provides.
We have a Utility Assistance program for low-income residents that provides financial assistance to help cover the cost of gas, electric, deliverable fuels, water, and first month’s rent and deposit. United Way pays for the first month’s rent and some utility assistance, and we also have some fundraised dollars that pay for utility assistance. In 2017, we awarded $768,397 and the average bill was $370. Because the funding to support some of our programs doesn’t come with money to cover the cost associated with administering some of our programs, we use Community Services Block Grant funds. These are used to administer programs like our GED program, Meals on Wheels and commodities program, but not for actual specific assistance.

Michelle Williamson COURTESY PHOTO

How does your Head Start programming work?
With Early Head Start, we have the ability to do home visits with pregnant women and provide them with pregnancy and child development education. We also connect them with community resources. Once their baby is born, we do well-baby visits and let them know that there is the potential for the baby to come in for center-based care. We have 10 locations for our Head Start programs, which serve infants through age 5. We provide about seven hours of care, five days a week. To qualify, people have to be at 100 percent of the poverty level. 

What do those services look like? 
Our Head Start program focuses on 3- and 4-year-olds and we offer part-day and full-day care. We blend funding with the state’s Great Start Readiness program, which allows us to offer the full day. When the state budget released so much preschool funding into Michigan, we changed the focus so we could serve 3-year-olds and Great Start could serve 4-year-olds. In 2017, we served 1,004 children from 912 families through both Head Start programs.

What types of services does CAA offer to older adults?
In Branch County, we provide a Meals on Wheels program. … The Senior Millage is our largest funding source for this, but we don’t have that in all of the counties we serve. The meals are prepared in a kitchen operated by CAA. In 2017, 137 homebound seniors received a total of 20,430 home-delivered meals in Branch County. We provided $216,275 in services through the home delivered meals and congregate dining programs.

We also offer a foster grandparents program that allows seniors to volunteer with a paid stipend. They work between 15 and 40 hours a week in Head Start, domestic violence centers or anyplace where there are vulnerable children. This is a federal- and state-funded program that also provides a meal and transportation for every day that is worked. In our four counties, we have between 80 and 100 seniors and we are recruiting heavily for that program.

That same transportation program, funded through the senior millage, also provides rides to disabled residents and seniors who don’t participate in the foster grandparents program to get them to medical appointments, the grocery store, the bank or other destinations.

Who is eligible to receive services through your weatherization and home rehab and repair programs?
Low-income households and seniors who qualify by age and income. Our weatherization program is another funding stream that passes through the state for us. This is a state- and federally-funded program that takes low-income households and reviews their home for energy efficiencies. We perform work such as replacing an old refrigerator or adding insulation to the walls. Because of the age and quality of housing stock in our communities, there’s just a lot of need for repair work, and we’ve seen a huge increase in people seeking those services. The weatherization program is for any age. The home repair program for age- and income-eligible seniors is funded through our senior millage (and) takes care of electrical, furnaces or water heaters and other code compliance issues. 

What kind of demand is that home repair service meeting? 
That need is huge. Where we used to hold between 15 and 20 on a waiting list, we now have upwards of 80. Housing stock has grown older and if seniors are living on Social Security and the cost of everything goes up, it’s hard to put money into rehabbing a home or making repairs. Our mission is for people to achieve and maintain independence.

How big of an issue is food insecurity in the counties you serve?
Food insecurity is a strong need and it has continued to grow as changes happened with the Department of Health and Human Services. We offer a commodities food program that provides a box containing $50 worth of food each month to seniors and a quarterly program that is income-based that provides the same amount of food to those who qualify who are 18 years of age or older. Both the senior program and that quarterly program have been expanded into Hillsdale, Jackson, and Lenawee counties. We had a very strong program here, but it was not well funded and we have to have some economies of scale to make it work. The food comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through an ordering system. The distribution of the food boxes happens at donated spaces, such as churches or food pantries.

Are there any plans to expand?
We just expanded our GED prep program in Barry County. We use Community Service Block Grants that allow us to be flexible in the way we administer the funds. We recently had a graduation program where we partnered with the Battle Creek Public School system. We had 11 graduates and five of them were ours. So many people don’t have a high school diploma, which they need to get a permanent position or to move up.

Anything else? 
We are actually in the process of developing a 6,000-square-foot property that was a Ponderosa Steakhouse in Hastings that will house our GED and Head Start programs, intake services for our commodities program and much more. This location will be much more accessible for our clients living in that area. The total cost is about $600,000 and we have about $125,000 left to raise.

What are the biggest misperceptions about the people you serve?
The public perception is that the people we serve are lazy. Almost every client who comes through our doors wants to better their situation and their children’s. The other misperception is that we just give handouts to people. We take a wholistic approach and provide educational opportunities to our clients. If they come in because they are going to have their utilities shut off, we try to link them to other services and help them to get access. We develop a client plan of action where they work with an intake worker and … we try to link them to those services and work on one thing before they go on to another.


MiBiz new coverage of Michigan’s nonprofit sector is made possible through a generous sponsorship by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a leader in funding, initiating and leading programs that benefit the Grand Rapids area in the arts, community development, education, environment, health, and human services. For more information, visit grfoundation.org.

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