Parents exiting poverty at record pace, driving poverty down & out in St. Pete

GYPSY C. GALLARDO, Contributor

ST. PETERSBURG — Earlier this month, about 100 people gathered at Mt Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church to celebrate a recent update from the federal Census Bureau showing the lowest poverty rate ever recorded for African Americans in the City of St. Petersburg.

It was welcomed news for the dozens of organizations who are partners to the 2020 Plan, a seven-year initiative to reduce the poverty rate by 30 percent in South St. Petersburg by the year 2020.

Figures published on Sept. 14 put the city’s black poverty rate at 17.6 percent, which signals that the uniquely aggressive 2020 Plan approach may be on the verge of reaching its goal.

But the occasion had another purpose that made it even more special.

Twenty-six of the people on hand for dinner that evening were mothers and fathers just finishing the half-way mark of the six-month STEP initiative at the Pinellas County Urban League to help their families exit poverty.

STEP, which stands for Success Training & Empowerment Program, is the newest poverty-exit program created as part of the 2020 Plan, but as Watson Haynes emphasized, STEP is now one of a dozen such programs created over the past two years that are working together to help hundreds of aspiring community residents.

Watson Haynes, featuredHaynes, who is CEO of the Urban League, credited Carolyn King, Executive Director of the Pinellas Opportunity Council (POC), and her team, for creating no less than five new poverty-exit programs since 2014. One graduate of a recent POC program shared her personal testimony.

“My name is Thabang Roberts, and this program has changed my life,” the mother of three told an enrapt audience. Roberts was unemployed, living in a CASA shelter with her children when she heard about the POC Getting Ahead program.

The native of Botswana, Africa, came to the United States at age 14 with her father serving as a diplomatic for their home country. Roberts dropped out of college to marry but soon found herself caught in a cycle of domestic violence. “Leaving that marriage is what landed us in poverty,” she said, “and this program is what helped me find my way.”

After completing the 15-week Getting Ahead training program, Roberts is employed at a local funeral home and is registered to begin a Cyber Security certification program at St. Petersburg College this month.

Emma Lauderdale, a participant of the STEP also took to the mike to share her story. Employed full-time with Lutheran Services but not earning enough to support her and her two children, Lauderdale is enrolled in a nursing certification program to boost her earnings. “I’m so grateful for this program for teaching me to speak and see things from a positive perspective, which I’ve been able to teach my siblings too.”

Rod Cunningham directs the STEP. He says, “A lot of these parents we’re working with are ‘in a hole,’ financially and very often emotionally as well. What’s unique about STEP is that we’re working on both fronts, to help people create a new vision for their lives.”

Cunningham emphasizes the team effort at the Urban League. Life coaches for STEP participants include Stacey Flowers, Gayle Philson, and Lisa Kirkland. Dr. Ladonna Butler provides one-on-one counseling to parents who need the extra support.

All told, partners to the 2020 Plan have so far helped at least 1,900 people to grow their earnings with the goal of exiting poverty.

Rev. Louis Murphy says “None of this would have been possible without the backing of funders such as the City of St. Petersburg, Allegany Franciscan Ministries and Bon Secours Mission Fund among others, and the men and women working hands-on with people who want a better life for their families.”

Mayor Rick Kriseman echoed the theme of teamwork. “The City and community partners are making a tide-turning difference in helping to bridge more people into new and better-paying jobs. We have a lot more work to do, but this is cause for celebrating what we can achieve by working together.”

Councilman Karl Nurse contends that the focus on raising family income is what makes the 2020 approach unique. “A lot of cities are focused on financial literacy, helping people to do more with what they earn. Yes, we’re helping people to become financially literate too, but 2020 is helping increase their income to lift their families out of poverty.” Nurse is a member of the 2020 Plan core team.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch points out another singular facet of local poverty reduction efforts, referring to the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) minted in 2015. “Not only is the South St. Petersburg CRA the only CRA in the county in a non-downtown area, it’s the only one dedicated to poverty reduction.”

Cory Adler, Executive Director of the 2020 Plan Taskforce notes, “You know the old saying ‘Success has a thousand fathers?’ Well, it happens to be true in this case. Over 100 organizations are working together to speed-up the pace of poverty reduction. While 2020 keeps the torch lit, we are one small part of this network.”

Adler credits the growing roster of people working for systemic change through collaboration.

A three-page brief by the 2020 Plan team names some of the groups contributing to community- wide impact:

On the leading edge of this growing movement as investors are the City of St. Petersburg, Allegany Franciscan Ministries, United Way Suncoast, Mt. Zion Progressive, Pinellas Opportunity Council, Bon Secours, R’Club, The 2020 Fund, the Tampa Bay Rays, and Tampa Black Business Investment Corporation, among others.

Leaders on the education front include St. Petersburg College, Pinellas Technical College, Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, Pinellas Education Foundation, Pinellas County Schools, and University of South Florida St. Pete.

Other service providers on the vanguard include Pinellas County Urban League, the St. Petersburg Greenhouse and the Chamber of Commerce.

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