BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – An effort to address generational poverty in southeast Iowa took another step on Monday night as close to 40 people packed the United Methodist Church to hear from West Burlington’s Vern Reed on the next steps of the program.
Reed, the at-risk coordinator for West Burlington High School, is the front man for the effort, known on Facebook as Building Bridges: A Southeast Iowa Initiative.
The Monday event was a chance to bring members of Lee County together to take the next step, which was to share an outline of how the program works and gauge the time and financial commitment in the county.
An initial training took place in November in front of close to 150 concerned Lee County residents.
“If things are going to change in our communities we have to look at something different than what we’re doing,” Reed said. “It goes back to our kids deserving a better shot than they are getting today.”
Reed said he believes in what Bridges teaches and that’s what he brings to the table. But he said Bridges doesn’t provide all the answers, but it brings a set of tools to deal with the what he terms as the “disease of generational poverty.”
Reed also brought Mona Ash, the full-time Bridges coordinator in Des Moines County, to the meeting with him. Ash was a part-time administrator at Young House services in Burlington, but the Bridges group in Des Moines County has partnered with Young House to be able to have a non-profit status and have an in-house grant writing service.
He said the thought process was to put together some big ideas for the Lee County group to consider moving forward.
“Is there a committed group to putting together a Bridges initiative in Lee County, if not, then nothing else can happen at this point.”
Reed brought up the hurdles that the Des Moines County effort ran up against in getting the process going. He said he wanted to share those missteps with the group to help save them some of the time and resources that didn’t help the program move forward.
One of the biggest parts of the Bridges program is Getting Ahead classes.
“This is the high-octane fuel that drives everything in the initiative. A quite close second is challenging the middle class to look at poverty in a different way,” Reed said.
He told the group that child care, transportation, food, and a $20 cash incentive for each person participating in the getting ahead classes are things that weren’t considered in the early stages of the Des Moines County program, that ultimately hurt attendance out of the gate.
He told the group that the quarterly Getting Ahead classes will cost about $5,000 to $6,000 per class to make sure things are set for success.
“You have to be willing to measure success in a different away. This metaphorical disease has been happening for generations. We in no way believe we’re going to eradicate this in five years, but our goal is to eradicate it,” Reed said.
Topics during the discussion focused on whether to have one city hold the Getting Ahead classes or have one in Keokuk and Fort Madison, and possibly in central Lee County. Reed said all the Bridges programs have their own identity but he would recommend one steering committee coordinating classes in both north and south Lee County.
Continuing steps will include forming a steering committee, planning the first of the Getting Ahead classes, creating a budget, and looking at financing and coordination of volunteers.