A hand up, not a hand out

BY CINDY CARTER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – The Pinellas Opportunity Council (POC) held a dinner Fri., Oct. 30 at the Enoch Davis Center to honor 17 local women who have stepped up their lives to step out of poverty.

As part of the 2020 Plan, a five-year effort to reduce poverty in the city’s poorest neighborhoods by 30 percent, the POC has worked with families for the past four months to help make that goal a reality. Funded in part by the City of St. Petersburg, it’s called the Family Development Program and its aim is to improve the quality of living for low-income families throughout Pinellas County.

“We didn’t want them to feel like we were giving them a handout, but a hand up,” said Program Coordinator Joyce Robinson, who worked closely with the participants.

She made it her mission to create success in the wrap-a-round service program and has tirelessly worked to ensure that the women coming to her for help received as much assistance as possible. Assistance that wouldn’t just pay a utility bill, but instead help to transform their lives so that in the future they can provide for their families.

Keianna Hayes is one program participant that will never forget the generosity and care that she received at the hands of the ladies at POC. Timid at the microphone, Hayes spoke of the transformation her life took after meeting Robinson and the POC staff. Her son, a member of the marching band at his high school, had fees that needed to be paid in order for him to continue. Hayes herself needed glasses.

“Sometimes as a single parent we can have the smallest need that weighs so big on us,” she said.

Hayes got new glasses and her son’s financial responsibilities taken care of, but it was mostly the help with her personal educational goals of passing the Florida Board of Nursing exam that she credits to getting her back on the right path.

“I was rusty so they were able to help out with a refresher course,” said Hayes. “Another burden was lifted off me.”

Paulette Haywood started her journey of self-sufficiency some three years ago. On her own and with two boys to feed, she was sick of working part time for minimum wage. “I was like there just has to be another way,” she said.

For her it was going to school. In the summer she realized she needed help. Maxed out on loans and financial aid depleted, Haywood didn’t know where to turn. “I used my money to pay my bills so I could go,” she said referring to college.

She was directed to POC and Robinson.

“When I came in I was at my lowest point,” recalled Haywood. “I didn’t have money for groceries; I was on my last tank of gas.”

And she still needed to pay her school debt or face losing all those years of hard work. Walking through the doors of the POC was like a blessing from God. Her tuition was paid in full; she received gift cards for food and a gas card to get her to classes. “It was really right on time.”

Haywood will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in social work, passing the torch of assistance on to another family in need, which is what the program is all about.

POC Executive Director Carolyn King, seconds away from tears after hearing all the testimonials, believes wholeheartedly that opportunity breeds change and a determination to succeed.

“It pulls at my heartstring to really see change and I can see the sincerity in each of you,” said King. “Oftentimes people in poverty are looked at as being in the place that they are by choice.”

Not these ladies. They embraced the opportunities made available to them and used it to their advantage. Seventeen families took part in the program and all were successful.

The program worked on three components of self-sufficiency: Job training, financial literacy, healthcare and nutrition.

Candase Callier was nine months pregnant when she heard about the assistance POC was offering. Initially she didn’t have high hopes, but when the voice on the other end of the phone told her to come on down, when she too was at her lowest point ever, she took a chance and with tears streaming down her face she couldn’t express enough how grateful she was.

“I was pregnant and no one wanted to hire me,” she said. But POC didn’t judge her and helped her not only get her daughter Nylah, a first grader at Jamerson Elementary, enrolled in a dance class, but also helped her along in her goal to earn her bachelor’s in education. “I never really had no one say let me help you, so to have someone give me something is a big deal.”

One after another, young ladies took to the microphone. Nathalie Williams credits the ladies of POC in teaching her how to truly budget her finances by setting both short and long-term goals. To live for today, but to plan for tomorrow.

“I was just living for the moment,” said Williams who has twins. “I am ready for success and my future.”

Williams received training and uniforms and took her part-time position to fulltime making more money to plan for that future.

“When you remove some of those barriers, you’d be surprised as to what can happen,” Robinson said. “We are here to help make a difference.”

Yashika McKinnion, a mother of five, was already on the road to self-sufficiency when she ran into a speed bump. She had taken a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) class, but was unable to pay for the state test to receive her license.

POC paid for the test and also helped her get the title of a car given to her by a church member transferred into her name along with car insurance and valid plates.

“It has really helped me and my future so that I can be better for my kids,” said McKinnion.

Single parent of two, Sharmora Mills was sick of her job as a housekeeper. The POC was able to pay for CNA classes, bought her uniforms and even paid for classes to help her feel comfortable driving. She is also a Patient Care Technician and is looking forward to progressing in the healthcare industry.

“Thank you to the program for helping me get a better job for my two boys,” Mills said.

Ylonda Powell wasn’t unable to make the dinner but was so excited about the program, she asked The Weekly Challenger to cover the event.

This single mother was referred to the POC by the Pinellas County Urban League. Already a full-time student at Hillsborough County Community College and employed for the Pinellas County School Board, Powell needed to get another job to make ends meet.

The POC paid for her classes to become a Patient Care Assistant. She also received a gift card from Publix, a gas card, four tires for her car and even her car insurance was paid.

“I know that God put the POC in my path for me to better myself and to be able to maintain my household,” said Powell in a heartfelt letter to the POC.

Following dinner participating families received health baskets packed with nutritious food and toiletries. Bags filled with water bottles and fruit were handed out to the kids along with literature on how to care for children and on proper nutrition.

For more information on services provided at the Pinellas Opportunity Council, log onto www.poc-inc.org.

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