By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
In a casual roundtable sort of discussion, members of the United Way of Mercer County’s planning commission set out some ideas for taking a closer look at what is keeping the poor from breaking out of the cycle of poverty.
As part of an ongoing study, community leaders, business owners and agency directors get together monthly and look at poverty through the lens of those on the forefront. Past guest speakers have included local district magistrates, captains from the Salvation Army, directors of social service organizations and others whose direct involvement with those in poverty affords them a view that those who fund the assistance programs may not see.
The United Way is determined to see how it can best spend the money it raises to alleviate some of the poverty in Mercer County, according to executive director Jim Micsky.
Dick Miller, one-time mayor of Greenville and director of Keystone Research, said, “I don’t think we’re in any hurry to restructure the objectives of the United Way. We’d like to take a look and listen to anyone who might offer us some insight.”
For his part, Miller said he has been giving some thought to boosting foster care services within Mercer County and in particular he’d like to see it play out that children of parents who “aren’t doing what they ought to be doing” have a place to go to learn from positive role models. He said he intends to ask Mercer-based Children’s Aid Society to make a presentation at one of the monthly forums held in Hermitage.
Micsky said United Way has received eight new requests for funding for the coming year, but unless the fundraising campaign exceeds its goal of $1 million, it would be difficult to fund new initiatives. The campaign, which started in September, has reached nearly $718,000 with two months left to go. Micsky said he is hopeful that the agency can raise at least the $863,000 it raised last year.
“We need everyone to realize how important the United Way dollars are to the quality of life in Mercer County. First, 100 percent of the money raised stays here. It’s used for programs that benefit our friends and neighbors. We’ve been blessed with a pretty consistent base of donors. I’m hoping now to reach those new businesses that opened in our county and get them to support us as well,” he said.
Much of Wednesday’s discussion centered around affordable housing and in particular programs of the Mercer County Housing Authority that assist low-income renters with finding work and acquiring life skills.
Nanette Livadas, executive director of the housing authority, said she’s particularly proud of the work some of her teams do in helping struggling families get back on their feet. The agency has 890 affordable housing units, she said, and she thinks many would be surprised to learn that public housing isn’t what most think it is.
“These places are nice. They are kept up. We can’t afford to have tenants who don’t keep the place nice,” she said. She added almost half of the tenants are seniors.
“We have a lot of elderly on the waiting list. Right now there is also a really big need for one-bedrooms for folks under age 55. We have a lot of single people in the county who can’t find affordable housing,” she said.
Another problem that the poor have, and one that makes a significant impact on the ability to work, she said, is transportation.
“We have a terrible transportation problem in this county. The buses and shuttles stop at 6 p.m. How is someone who gets a job working afternoon turn going to get there and back? And then there are child-care issues. It’s an incredibly hard thing to manage. I mean, it’s really tough to juggle all that,” she said.
Micsky echoed her sentiments.
“We need the community to step up and help us solve some of these issues. It’s really critical to the success. I think many times families who are in poverty simply do not know how to get out, with all these obstacles facing them.”
Randy Beck, a deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sharon and the owner of Sharon Commercial Printing, said he would like to see programs that interact with children living in poverty, to show them there are other ways of living.
“You have a lot of churches that are empty during the week. What about opening them to programs that offer children after school a place to do homework, play, get something to eat and be part of a community? It would take a community of volunteers and the coordination effort would be a huge undertaking, but it’s a way to reach across the generations and show them something different is possible,” Beck said.