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The Post and Courier, July 24th, 2011

July 24, 2011, noon · 0 comments

Beyond poverty: Lowcountry network seeks to marshal churches, charities in effort to empower poor

Charleston, South Carolina

by Adam Parker, The Post and Courier

Posted: Sunday, July 24, 2011 12:01 a.m., Updated: Friday, March 23, 2012 10:39 p.m.

There are doers and there are facilitators.

Chuck Coward and the Human Needs Network are mostly in the second category. Coward's title is chief vision navigator, which indicates his emphasis. The goal is to make connections among potential collaborators -- nonprofits, churches, agencies and service providers -- in an effort to alleviate the effects of systemic poverty.

Once called Charleston Outreach and affiliated with the Charleston Baptist Association, the now-independent Human Needs Network assumed its new name officially on Jan. 1.

And it's been ramping up its efforts lately, forging new collaborations on Johns Island and in Goose Creek, seeking to empower both the impoverished and those who serve them.

Coward and his small staff are the idea generators, the cheerleaders, the faithful who believe that communities can be healed when resources are combined and deployed by teams of caring people, he said.

But it's not only about beneficent ideas.


In 2009, the Human Needs Network and Trident United Way introduced a new computer-based solution to link local churches and agencies together so they could share information about clients served.

The software product is called CharityTracker.

When churches are able to centralize key information, they can better track which services have been offered and make their outreach ministries more efficient, Coward has said.

"We're wanting to help the church be the church," he said, "to be a life-restoring institution in a broken world."

Today, local users of CharityTracker number more than 100 and include East Cooper Community Outreach, Stallsville United Methodist Church in Summerville, St. Andrew's Church and East Cooper Baptist in Mount Pleasant, Northbridge Baptist Church in West Ashley and Midland Park Ministry Center (part of Riverbluff Church) in North Charleston.

About 400 individuals at churches and agencies have been given access to the database, and more than 46,000 clients (nearly 21,000 households) have received $2.6 million in financial assistance since 2009, according to Cathy Easley, Trident United Way's vice president of Safety Net Services.

"Now it is so much easier to look at a picture of a family in a positive way," Easley said. "With a family in need, it's so important to determine what's missing, specifically, to help them move forward."

CharityTracker's bulletin feature enables easy inter-agency communication and minimizes the need for lots of phone calls, she said.

"Midland Park Ministries recently sent a bulletin out. They had a woman who makes a living sewing. But her machine was disabled," Easley said. "Within five minutes, she had five offers of a sewing machine."

The requirements of one service provider are known to the others, making the delivery of aid more efficient, and the burden on the client less cumbersome, she said.

"It builds trust between all of the agencies and churches."


Coward and Easley co-administer the CharityTracker program. They work together to offer human needs response training in the Lowcountry's communities, bringing stakeholders together and encouraging the kind of collaboration that might lead to true social and economic restoration, they said.

On Johns and Wadmalaw islands, Coward and his colleagues have learned about acute food insecurity, especially among vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, disabled and children.

Food insecurity is strongly associated with household income. It is, by definition, a condition that arises from a lack of enough income and other resources.

Human needs training there brought people from 13 churches to the table to discuss systemic problems and the need to deliver not only emergency food aid but also nutrition, Coward said.

"We recognized a general desire for the Johns Island world to be better, and community leaders are dedicated to improving it, but they're not sure how," Coward said. "So we're using food insecurity as the catalyst to create collaborative behavior across organizational lines."

What's desired is long-term change.

"It's not about establishing more food pantries but creating systems that move people from instability to stability to self-sustainability," he said.

Housing aid

In Goose Creek, the Human Needs Network is consulting with clergy about the need for emergency shelter and transitional housing.

Coward said he hopes to help design a small transitional housing pilot that can be expanded and replicated throughout the area.

The organization also is a partner in the Ramp It Up program, whose ambitious goal is "to build every needed wheelchair ramp in the Tri-County by the end of 2011."

Working with the Disability Resource Center, Operation Home, Trident Area Agency on Aging and a host of volunteers, the collaborative effort has installed 11 ramps since it announced the initiative in April.

But success depends not only on collaboration, but on the kind of collaboration that delivers sustainable change, Coward said. And that requires that the community ask itself some difficult questions.

"Is our help the right kind of help?" Is it long-lasting, will it empower the powerless? Or is it guilt relief?

And change, Coward said, requires an essential ingredient: the right attitude.

"People develop an attitude toward people in poverty that's one of frustration and even anger," Coward noted. They blame the victim, he said. They expect him to just work harder.

"But do you know their story?"

Beginning in November, the Human Needs Network will present the Bridges Out of Poverty program, which models poverty through role playing and puts participants in the shoes of the poor. The program likely will be offered semi-annually and include community leaders as well as average citizens.

It's designed to sensitize people about the true cost of poverty and the difficult challenges it presents, he said. It's meant to shatter assumptions and change attitudes.

"Assumptions can be poison to restoration," Coward said.

Here's a link to the original article.

Categories: Press

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