Evonne Zook retires: ‘Change of any sort requires courage’

Evonne Zook, front and center, with the 2014 Family Assistance team.

Evonne Zook, front and center, with the 2014 Family Assistance team

After 15 years working as an attorney for Solid Ground’s Family Assistance program where she helped people living on low incomes access public benefits, Evonne Zook is moving on to her next adventure. While she is leaving our agency and even Washington state to settle in Lake Havasu, Arizona with family, Evonne is hardly retiring. With so many new and changing laws, especially regarding immigration, she hopes to volunteer or do pro bono work in the field to continue to help people in need.

The trajectory of Evonne’s journey to Solid Ground was unconventional, but fueled by a commitment to serve the public and fight for justice. As a single mother, she worked in the banking industry while raising her children until 1990. However, the corporate environment contradicted her natural instincts, and she struggled against the system before deciding to return to school to finish her undergraduate studies.

At 54 years old, Evonne moved to Washington from Oregon to enter law school. In 1998, she volunteered for the first time at what was then the Fremont Public Association, and says she “fell in love with the Family Assistance program, helping people who were really in need rather than fighting corporate businesses.” After taking the bar exam, there was a job opening at Solid Ground; she applied for it immediately after passing the test and has been with the agency ever since.

Family Assistance is one of the only programs in King County practicing civil law to represent people on public benefits issues. State funding is rare for non-criminal court cases when public defenders are not automatically provided, so Solid Ground’s attorneys fill that gap. Utilizing a cooperative approach, they work closely with Solid Ground’s JourneyHome and other housing programs to get people the support they need. Evonne emphasizes that collaborating “with people who have the same goals is a wonderful thing.”

She reflects that her most memorable moments have been helping people get benefits they didn’t even know they were entitled to, after being entrenched for years by the biases of the state’s bureaucratic system:

Evonne-circleWhat we do is represent clients for no charge who are having problems with public benefits – who have been denied or had their benefits reduced for cash, food, Medicaid and childcare. And we will represent the client in administrative hearings if we believe the client has made a mistake or is being discriminated against in any way. So it’s been very busy with changes in the law.

There are a lot of attorneys in the state trying to work on changing the laws, and I do believe that is valuable work. But given my age, I always thought it was more beneficial to help the clients slipping through the cracks right now than it was to try and change the laws that I might never see. That progress is kind of like evolution: Changes happen so slowly that sometimes people experiencing the problems now don’t have any hope that anything is ever going to change.

I think that the real benefit we’ve been able to offer to clients in this program is access to the law, access to the courts, and to justice. Because a lot of people give up; they think the courts are only for those that can afford the best and most expensive lawyers; they think the law is not on their side or that things are hopeless.

So we’re talking about the law that enables them to support their families and move out of poverty, and we’ve been able to offer clients enough encouragement and explanation of what the law says so they feel they are in tune with the law. We’re not able to change the law on this level, but lots of times, if we let a client know what their rights are, they feel so much better.”

Evonne feels the poor have to have an advocate against the gatekeepers to social services who are bound by their own prejudices. Clients also have the right to be heard; they have constitutional rights to due process, and every decision the state makes to harm them or take away a benefit, they have the right to protest. “In the meantime, we can offer them alternatives and some support.”

Many clients have mental health issues, and courts tend to be sympathetic, tuned-in to individuals who are fighting the state bureaucracy for services and basic rights that the law allows. Even so, about 80% of cases are settled outside of court, because Family Assistance’s style is “to help the client first and foremost, not to ‘win.’ We can’t take every case, but we can explain the law, who can help them, what they can do and what alternatives are available to them.”

Evonne-Flowers-WebA plaque in Evonne’s office reads, “Change of any sort requires courage,” an apt metaphor for the challenges of retirement. Until about four years ago, she was Lead Benefits Attorney. At the time, she “decided to step down and maybe partially retire. Stephanie Earhart has taken over the lead since that point, and it has worked out great.” But she found “part-time retirement didn’t work for me – being in the office three days a week and thinking about the cases the other two days – so I returned to full-time. But I think it was important at that time to pass on the leadership role of the program to Stephanie.” And now, she says, “I’m 72 years old; it’s time to change and I’m ready.”

Looking at the stacked boxes of files filled with decades’ worth of clients in Evonne’s office, it is remarkable to see a physical representation of the deep impact she has had on the countless people she has served. “I have loved working with the people here at Solid Ground; their values are so in tune with making the world a better place. It’s been just a wonderful experience; I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

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Community Needs Assessment a foundation for strategic planning

Gordon McHenry, Jr.

President & CEO Gordon McHenry, Jr.

Last year, Solid Ground reflected upon and celebrated our 40 years of service in King County and Washington state. We took time to understand the work and impressive legacy of our forebears. We recognized that the culture of Solid Ground is one of Innovation, Partnership and Action, and those intrinsic characteristics have enabled us to be highly impactful in our direct services, social justice and advocacy work.

As a Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) recipient and Community Action Agency, we are required to prepare a Community Needs Assessment (CNA) of the communities we serve. In addition to understanding the current needs of the communities we choose to serve, the CNA is also an analysis of our assets, capabilities and organizational challenges to successfully address the unmet needs of our communities.

In the 2014 Community Needs Assessment, we noted six areas of significant community need:

  • racial and economic inequities
  • lack of affordable housing
  • lack of educational attainment and opportunities
  • lack of living wage jobs
  • food insecurity and lack of nutritional education
  • inadequate access to health care and health services

Appropriately, Solid Ground has service and advocacy responses in each of these areas. The CNA also identifies some trends which we will need to better understand as we evaluate how we serve an evolving community, including:

  • growth in elderly residents
  • immigrants and refugees
  • an increasing gap in income and wealth
  • significant transportation challenges which exacerbate existing inequities

We look forward to using the 2014 Community Needs Assessment as a foundational analysis as we begin the 2015 process of creating our next agency strategic plan over the next three-to-five years.

Holiday Giving brought joy to families in need!

This post was contributed by Kira Zylstra, Solid Ground Stabilization Services Director, who participated in Solid Ground’s 2014 Holiday Giving campaign.

The holiday season is a time for joy and celebration, and for those in our community with the fewest resources, it can also bring added stress and hardship. Because of this, Solid Ground worked to support the families participating in our housing stabilization programs through the 2014 Holiday Giving Program.

We launched the program by asking for community support to provide gifts and financial contributions that could assist in providing each participating family with a gift package including household items, children’s toys, and gift cards for food.

With gifts and donations from local businesses – and individual gifts through Solid Ground’s website – we were able to raise nearly $12,000 to support 115 families who are currently experiencing homelessness or on the brink of losing their housing. This support lessened the burden for these families and allowed space for community and celebration at a time when even meeting basic needs can be a struggle.

GiftBag2014Some of our 2014 Holiday Giving Partners included:

AlyssaFrugeOne of our key supporters on this campaign was a young leader from Holy Names Academy, Alyssa Frugé. Alyssa volunteers with Solid Ground’s Resource Development team, and in addition to her ongoing data entry projects, she took on a new challenge to further support Solid Ground’s programs during the holiday season. Alyssa led a project to support the Holiday Giving program through her church, St. Benedict Parish, and was able to provide the greatest level of giving from any one donor in the program. The Parish and School provided these gifts as part of an even larger campaign which collected over 700 gifts for programs across the city of Seattle.

St. Benedict Parish and School alone provided 97 gifts, which single-handedly supported 30 local families who are currently homeless or at risk of losing their housing. Alyssa brought great enthusiasm and determination to this project of creating holiday baskets. When we first discussed the campaign and how many families we were hoping to support, she immediately wanted to set a goal of having each and every family supported.

Alyssa boldly set a goal of 100 gift tags for the Parish, which was already supporting a number of other community projects, and her commitment brought us to our goal. “It makes me grateful and simply happy to know my service has helped others, and I think volunteering is an excellent way to grow as an individual,” she says. “The holiday fundraiser helped me improve my speaking and marketing skills, and taught me the values of being an assertive and persuasive leader.”

The Holiday Giving program was a success in 2014 thanks to the effort and support of so many generous individuals and organizations.

Jackie MacLean joins Solid Ground as VP of Strategy & Programs

Former Director of King County's Department of Community and Human Services Jackie MacLean joins Solid Ground

Jackie MacLean

Jackie MacLean, who has served in King County for 20 years – including 12 as Director of the Department of Community and Human Services – is joining Solid Ground as Vice President of Strategy & Programs, effective January 12, 2015.

“Jackie has a long commitment to Solid Ground’s populations and services,” says Gordon McHenry, Jr., Solid Ground’s President & CEO. “Her strong leadership skills and breadth of management experience will help Solid Ground more effectively meet our mission to end poverty and undo racism and other root causes of poverty.”

MacLean’s career has been devoted to developing and running effective services for vulnerable populations, including treatment and recovery, prevention, stability and self-sufficiency programs. She represented the County on the National Alliance to End Homelessness Leadership Council and other regional and national coalitions working to improve outcomes in systems addressing homelessness, housing, aging and disabilities, criminal justice, health care, and other issues disproportionately impacting low-income communities and people of color.

“Jackie has tremendous connections in our community and has an insider’s perspective on many of the upcoming changes to service systems,” McHenry says. “Her systemic view of our community’s response to poverty will be a great asset to Solid Ground.”

“Like Solid Ground, I believe that our community can move beyond poverty and embrace equity and social justice,” MacLean states. “I am thrilled to be coming to Solid Ground and look forward to improving our outcomes and our responsiveness to the community.”

Paying tribute to the Martin Luther King VISTA program

Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

National Service team members, community builders.

National Service team members, community builders

In 1985, with Dr. King’s words ringing in their ears, Solid Ground (then the Fremont Public Association) launched a VISTA program to develop community leadership and fight poverty through National Service. In 1989, the program was christened the Martin Luther King VISTA Corps.

“The brilliant thing about the program,” remembers Lynn Livesley, one of the initial corps members and current Executive Director of Literacy Source, “was always the attitude that ‘We can do this.’ The glass was always half full. It was always very positive and we got things done. … The idea of bringing literally hundreds of people into this work is ‘power in numbers,’ and working towards social justice by working with the passion and commitment of people who want to see change in our community. It was an exciting time.”

In subsequent years, Solid Ground developed National Service programs to effectively address literacy, develop community-based violence prevention, and support anti-poverty capacity building throughout King County. At one time, we managed the state’s largest group of National Service programs, with 150 AmeriCorps & VISTA members. Backed up by a deep anti-oppression training program, Solid Ground’s National Service programs developed a strong reputation in the community.

 

AmeriCorps Program supervisor Kim Gordon tutoring, circa 1999

AmeriCorps Program Supervisor Kim Gordon tutoring, circa 1999

Lynn Livesley, MLK VISTA, circa 1985. Lynn was later program manager and director of the agency's national service programs

Lynn Livesley, MLK VISTA, circa 1985; Lynn later became Program Manager and Director of the agency’s suite of National Service programs

MLK Corps member Mark Santos Johnson and Deputy Mayor Bob Watt, circa 1993

MLK VISTA member Mark Santos Johnson and Deputy Mayor Bob Watt, circa 1993

Pat Russell, former MLK VISTA program supervisor, circa 1988

Pat Russell, former MLK VISTA Program Supervisor, circa 1988

On August 31, 2014, we ended the MLK VISTA program, marking the end of an era. The Washington Reading Corps, JustServe AmeriCorps and Pathway to Career Corps had closed in recent years. All were afflicted by variations of the same fatal challenge: changing priorities and practices mandated by the federal contracts that funded them.

For instance, changes in the direction of the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) meant that “for the first time in our long history of partnering, (we) were not in agreement (with CNCS) around creating leaders who understood the connection of racism and poverty,” noted former MLK Program Supervisor, Edna Sadberry.

For over 25 years, these programs helped develop countless resources, organizations and leaders in the fight against poverty. More than 2,500 corps members graduated, and former members now hold leadership positions in many innovative and effective organizations including Solid Ground, United Way, Literacy Source, Real Change, YWCA, Seattle Young People’s Project, El Centro de la Raza, 501 Commons, Wellspring, American Friends Service Committee and many others.

“It created a space for a lot of our community leaders to grow,” stated former MLK team leader Nicole Dufva. “You learned a lot and you grew a lot. What it teaches, what it draws your attention to – it can be that starting point for a lot of people.”

Our sadness at closing the program is leavened by our pride in its accomplishments and enduring contributions to our community. Edna, Nicole and Julz Ignacio were the last in a long line of incredibly talented and dedicated staff of our National Service programs. Please join me in honoring their work, the many great leaders who preceded them, and the lessons this agency has learned through their service.

And we shall have to do more than register and more than vote; we shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect, who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud with an enthusiasm that enables us to rally support for them based on confidence and trust. We will have to demand high standards and give consistent, loyal support to those who merit it.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

1989_MLK-edited

MLK VISTA program closure means one fewer ‘space for our community leaders to grow’

2013/14 MLK VISTA leaders Julz Ignacio & Nicole Dufva

2013/14 MLK VISTA leaders (l to r) Julz Ignacio & Nicole Dufva

As of August 31, 2014, Solid Ground’s  MLK VISTA program closed its doors due to funding challenges, ending an important chapter in Solid Ground’s history. Since 1989, the program has built strong ties in low-income and communities of color, and its loss will be felt deeply by the Solid Ground community and among some of our most grassroots partners leading the way in social justice work in Seattle/King County. Today, we’d like to honor this work and celebrate some of the achievements and empowerment that MLK VISTA has fostered over the years.

MLK VISTA was a partnership between Solid Ground and the Corporation for National & Community Service. It recruited AmeriCorps*VISTA members, sometimes local (and sometimes not), to perform a year of service in one of around 20 grassroots organizations in our area. “It was a team of AmeriCorps members that focused on leadership development from an anti-racism perspective,” says Nicole Dufva, MLK VISTA Team Leader for the 2013/2014 year. “Members worked in communities doing indirect service,” she explains, meaning members were in charge of large internal projects and also conducted structural evaluations to recommend potential changes (as opposed to engaging in more hands-on direct service activities). This allowed VISTAs to learn more about the how-tos of organizations from an operational standpoint.

The MLK VISTA program’s mission is in direct synchronicity with Solid Ground’s mission to end poverty and undo racism and other oppressions that are root causes of poverty:

  1. All people have the right to food, shelter, social justice and opportunity.
  2. Our community has the resources and ability to end poverty.
  3. Racism perpetuates poverty. To end poverty, we must undo racism.
  4. Community interest, input and ownership are key to the development, growth and expansion of the community. True solutions to community issues are found within its citizens.
  5. Power rests within the citizens of each community’s experiences. Therefore, the best evaluators of a community’s true condition lie in the wisdom of its members.

Organizations that participated in this AmeriCorps/VISTA program in the past year included the Kent School District, Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), The Queen Anne Food Bank at Sacred Heart, El Centro de la Raza, Express Advantage, Asian Counseling & Referral Service (ACRS), Volunteers of America Food Bank, Jewish Family Service and the University of Washington Foundation – Bothell Youth Court.

Describing some of the specific projects that members worked on while in the program, Nicole says that “one of the VISTAs created a whole mentoring program for LIHI. For El Centro de la Raza, one VISTA provided comprehensive feedback on all of their programs. They also archived their history, looking at all the different pieces of their history. They looked at, ‘How do you save their history for future generations to learn from?’ ”

Members of the 2013/14 MLK VISTA team attend Solid Ground's Stand Against Racism event, 2014.

Members of the 2013/14 MLK VISTA team attend Solid Ground’s Stand Against Racism event, 2014. (l to r): Michelle Jaquish, Nicole Dufva, Edna Sadberry, Meghann Wiedl, Shannon Armstrong & Kate Sedney-Read

With such a wide variety of program focuses, the opportunities for learning and growth while serving their communities were endless. But more than just administrative work, members also “worked on skills on how to address institutional oppression,” says Nicole. In fact, members of the team as well as program staff at Solid Ground would meet weekly for leadership development workshops. During these workshops, she says, topics of discussion ranged from “UIR (Undoing Institutional Racism) trainings, trainings around sexuality and about theRACE: The Power of an Illusion’ video. API Chaya provided training on human trafficking and domestic violence,” Nicole informed me.

After the program’s ending was announced, Nicole took a new position with Solid Ground’s Hunger & Food Resources Department as a Cooking Matters Program Coordinator. When asked what she misses most about MLK VISTA, she says, “I miss the team and the meetings. We always had fun, always had food. The team is like the heart and soul of the program. They really kept me grounded. That learning and growing environment challenged you – your growth with each other and individually. Meetings were a time to unwind with people who were growing in the same way you were.”

In a statement for Solid Ground’s employee newsletter, the “FYI,” former MLK VISTA Program Supervisor Edna Sadberry wrote about the program’s impacts: “This is a program that truly understands the challenges of examining personal biases and prejudices as well as the courage it takes to sit in difficult discussions each week around the sensitive topic of racism and its impact on poverty. You will recognize [former MLK VISTA members] by the probing social justice questions they ask that are uncomfortable to think about.”

MLK VISTAs from 2009/2010

MLK VISTAs from 2009/2010

And MLK VISTA alums really are everywhere. Nicole says, “There are many people in Seattle who have gone through the program. It created a space for a lot of our community leaders to grow. You learned a lot and you grew a lot. What it teaches, what it draws your attention to – it can be that starting point for a lot of people.” And so it was. Former members now hold leadership positions in many different organizations including Solid Ground, United Way, Real Change, YWCA, Seattle Young People’s Project, El Centro de la Raza, 501 Commons, Wellspring, American Friends Service Committee and many others. Given such a strong leadership presence throughout the social justice community in King County and beyond, the absence of this program, although silent, will definitely be heard loud and clear.

Power in pennies: A tribute to Penny Harvest

Unfortunately, Solid Ground is ending its sponsorship of the Penny Harvest program on June 30th, 2014. Penny Harvest advocates are still looking for a new home for the program.

Environmental stewards. Philanthropists. Community leaders. These are not usually titles we give to kids, even if the phrase “making a difference” is constantly pushed throughout school curricula. Is there a way that schools can facilitate the kindly intentions of students who are just at the beginning stages of a lifetime of learning? With the Penny Harvest program, one can truly call these little humanitarians, from kindergarten to 12th grade, bighearted superstars.

Penny drive at Adams Elementary School, 2011

Penny drive at Adams Elementary School, 2011

Bringing the drive to Seattle

In 1992, Solid Ground (then known as the Fremont Public Association) partnered with Family Services (now Wellspring Family Services) and Atlantic Street Center to create Common Cents to teach area youth about homelessness through a spring coin drive paired with educational presentations. Around $40,000 per year was raised to serve families experiencing homelessness, all the while engaging thousands of students in philanthropic efforts.

In 2005, the program became affiliated with the New York-based Common Cents and changed the name of the local operation to Penny Harvest. The model of the program also shifted from funding three specific organizations to allowing youth to select who and what to fund, and expanded to include a stronger focus on social justice work. Penny Harvest is now a national service-learning program engaging students between the ages of four and 18 in processes of philanthropy including gathering pennies, grant making and taking action as leaders in their community. The program introduces students to the power of giving and volunteerism, and thus they learn the right steps to drive change in their communities. Organizations that have received donations include everything from safe housing for youth and families, animal welfare, environmental justice to individual sponsorship of a homeless man in the neighborhood.

Find a penny, pick it up…

Kathleen Penna in a van full of sacks

Kathleen Penna in a van full of sacks

Different than your typical fundraiser, the Penny Harvest was more like a scavenger hunt at times. “Pennies are usually very accessible, especially to young people. You can find them everywhere. [Students] look under their couches, ask their neighbors. They have big jars that they keep in their schools,” says Kathleen Penna, Community Development Program Coordinator (and former Penny Harvest Program Coordinator) at Solid Ground. “They’re also something that we don’t often think of as useful anymore, because you can’t buy anything with [just] pennies.” When asked what was her favorite part about the actual collection of pennies, Kathleen says, “It was cool to see the giant piles of pennies. We had U-Haul vans that were full of pennies.”

This sort of energetic strategy can really get kids engaged, allowing them to experience the difficult, hands-on work it takes to fundraise. It also increases excitement around getting involved in the decision making process on where to allocate the funds, a task for which the students are 100% in charge.

Ana Lucía Degel as a Penny Harvest Youth Board member,  June 2005

Ana Lucía Degel as a Penny Harvest Youth Board member, June 2005

One former Penny Harvest participant, Ana Lucía Degel, says that this kind of empowerment “has profoundly shaped my ability to examine my role in my community, my own privilege, and my determination to affect change through the work that I choose to do.” Ana Lucía  is currently an Education Specialist with Treehouse, providing dropout prevention services and education case management for youth who have experienced foster care. “Penny Harvest planted the seed within me that I am capable of dreaming change that seems impossible, and I can find ways to take steps towards that change by working within my community.”

This sort of sentiment can be heard from students and adults alike. “Our main goal is that young people learn that they can and do make a difference at a very early age,” says Mike Beebe, former Penny Harvest Program Manager at Solid Ground. “Learning about community input, mapping community assets, community organizing. What we can do working together is so much more powerful than what we can do as one person. In some ways, I think that challenges the narrative in our country around individualism,” says Mike.

Steering the ship

Penny Harvest Youth Boards consisted of 10 members and were open to any student who committed to it. This past year, there were a couple of members who started in 2nd grade and are now of driving age. Of their role over the last few months, Kathleen says, “They are really steering the ship of the program.”

Ana Lucía says that one of her favorite parts of the program was being on the Board. “I really began to feel empowered to make a difference in my community,” she says.

The Board typically met every Monday and talked about the visioning and transitioning of the program, wrote and sent out appeal letters, and planned events like the Youth Philanthropy Summit.

Youth Board meeting in 2002

Youth Board meeting in 2002

The Summit was always a special time of year. “This year we had about 140 students who came to the Summit. They got the chance to meet about 30 different organizations from across the city that do a wide variety of work and really connect with them on a different level,” explains Kathleen. After that initial meeting, students then workshopped and dug into the root causes of issues they care about most. “It’s really complicated and complex and compacted. It was really cool to see everyone from the 16-year-old Youth Board members to the kindergartners who were there,” says Kathleen.

Continuing the mission

Sometimes it seems crazy to think that something as small as a penny could ever make a difference in anyone’s life. A piece of currency that has been, for some years now, considered almost unnecessary in our economy and one that is constantly on the verge of becoming obsolete. However, the mission of the Penny Harvest program is to turn one person’s inept coinage into a student’s philanthropic development that benefits the community.

“The most meaningful social change that’s happened in this country, it’s the youth and young adults who’ve led that effort,” Mike explains to describe the program’s impact. “But we’re even taking it down to kindergarten age and saying, ‘Well, they can do that right now.’ We don’t have to wait until they’re high school or college age, or wait till they’re in their 30s. Let’s not waste time. Let’s support them in doing that now.”

If you are interested in assisting Penny Harvest in finding a new host organization, please contact Common Cents through Mike Beebe at 206.354.7312 or mpbeebe@gmail.com.

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