Lee County workforce officials want to tackle poverty

Kumar Wickramasingha speaks to students of a Burlington Bridges class at a night session in October. Lee County volunteers are looking at bringing the program to Lee County. Photo courtesy of Building Bridges - A Southeast Iowa Initiative Facebook page.


LEE COUNTY – An international program aimed at solving generational poverty may be coming to Lee County.

The project, called Bridges Out of Poverty, looks at the specific issues facing communities, counties or regions and helps guide the implementation of plans to help combat the issues that are keeping those communities from climbing out of poverty.

Dennis Fraise, chief operating officer of the Lee County Economic Development Group, said the program could be beneficial in building a stronger workforce in Lee County.

Fraise became interested in the program after reaching out to Vern Reed for information about the Building Bridges – A Southeast Iowa Initiative in Burlington. The local program was started by Vern who is an At-Risk instructor at West Burlington High School, and his wife Cindy.

“Vern Reed started this program, He’s the one that spearheaded it in Des Moines county and his initiative is for southeast Iowa. I thought it might be something applicable down here. We struggle with our unemployment rate and we look for ways to build our workforce,” Fraise said Tuesday.

“I thought Bridges, after meeting with Vern, was a really good program and addressed some of the things we’re dealing with as well in helping people getting a leg up.”

Fraise and Fort Madison Partners Executive Director Tim Gobble, have started putting plans together to look at implementing the program locally. An initial meeting to discuss the program will be held Thursday and a planning session has been tentatively set for Thursday, Dec. 7, which would include half-day training sessions to get the process started in Lee County.

Fraise said the Bridges program is used across the country and even in some other countries.

“Our goal is to bring it to Lee County. It’s not my or Tim’s intention to lead, but we’ll be the catalyst and try to fill the room with trainees and see where it goes from there.

Reed said he and Cindy have been the unofficial At-Risk personnel at West Burlington for close to 20 years until Vern landed the job officially. He said the program makes it easier for those suffering with generational or situational poverty to find answers.

“In some ways I became involved by accident. I run The Corners at WBHS that makes me the school’s at-risk dude,” Reed said. “I lobbied for this because we needed to do something for kids. But she and I have been defacto at-risk people for 20 years. The great thing here is that if kids know you are willing to care – they will find their way to you. When I became the official At-Risk with Corners, we heard about Getting Ahead training in Dubuque put on as part of the Bridges out of Poverty program.”

Reed said he attended the training session and was quickly convinced that the program was something that could be implemented in southeast Iowa. The Bridges program has Getting Ahead training sessions and Staying Ahead training sessions and celebrates the classes with graduations.

So he approached the West Burlington administration to help bring the program to Des Moines County.

“We think we needed all of this in SE Iowa,” Reed said. “Our superintendent Dave Schmidt asked us if we thought it could make a difference. When we told him we thought it could have an impact locally, the school gave us $6,000 and brought a training to WBHS and out of the gate we had 100 people there and that was in December of 2015. Since then it’s exploded.”

He said he felt like it was the right information at the right time for many in the training session and subsequent training sessions, because it provides tools to attack the causes across class lines to make a difference.

“Bridges challenges us to look at poverty differently,” Reed said.  “That first training in Lee County will be the first big kickoff.  We need to get as many people to that training, businesses, service groups, educators, as possible as it challenges the way we view poverty and offers solutions in the process. The other side is the high octane Getting Ahead in a just-getting-by-world. It’s very powerful with research and learning that helps a person understand what it takes for a meaningful life.”

Reed said the program is a southeast Iowa initiative and not just a Burlington, West Burlington or Des Moines County effort. He said he’s excited to see Lee County and possibly Henry County get programs up and running as well.

He said people from Lee County have been involved in some of the training programs in Burlington and he’s even had a class visit the Elliott Test Kitchen in Fort Madison.

“People in Lee County have been to training here and Dennis reached out to me this summer to learn more and others reached out to us this fall to see how it would impact unemployment,” Reed said. “In that meeting we said ‘let’s make people more aware of what Bridges looks like and how we do business as a community’. And because our school paid for us to be trainers we can do this at low or no cost for the community.”

Funding for the program is obtained through service organizations, grants and local foundations. He said Kiwanis, Murray Trust, Great River Health Systems, Winegard, and a vareity of other groups have been integral in funding the initiative.

“For Lee County, the beautiful thing about Bridges is that you take research and learning and apply it to specific circumstances. Lee County’s program will look different than Burlington’s and Mt. Pleasant may look different than yours,” Reed said. “However, because we’ve been in the process there are some things we can do to help in regards to what it might look like. Our goal is to serve as the resource to Lee County. The reality is that we’re here to learn and help each other. To make a difference that can last instead of treating the symptoms of poverty.”

He said the program would be complimentary to, say LCEDG’s Manufacturing 101 program.

“That’s a great program, but if a person doesn’t have a better understanding of what it takes, as far as middle class norms and rules, just that class won’t help them enough,” he said. “Adding that other piece first is a great way to attack the problem. Before we didn’t have that tool-wise to make things better. We’ve just been dealing with the symptoms of what is the disease. We don’t mean ‘disease’ to place blame, but we deal with what it is. Bridges has taught us we can spend years on blame but if we don’t attack it nothing changes.”


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