Celebrating a Step Up Partner, St. Mary’s Community Center

October 23rd, 2015 by

St. Mary'LOCATED ON W. 36th Street in the Cuyler-Brownville neighborhood,
St. Mary’s sits in the heart of a census tract where 61% of its residents are living below the poverty level. This former neighborhood school has been transformed into a vital hub of community services under the leadership of Sister Pat Baber. A former elementary school principal, Sister Pat was invited 16 years ago by Paul Hinchey to become the director of a new outreach initiative of St. Joseph’s/Candler.

How They Make a Difference

  • Preschool for 3-4 year olds with emphasis on language development
  • Financial literacy
  • Professional counseling
  • Job training services – job searches, interview preparation, resume and application assistance
  • Computer lab and basic computer instruction
  • Assistance for elderly

Our Partnership

St. Mary’s has been a leading advocate of Step Up from the beginning. In 2003, Sister Pat (pictured to the right) and other community leaders received _RBC7275 an invitation to participate in a citywide anti-poverty task force. Sister Pat recalls how the task force’s discussion groups were unique because individuals from all sectors of the community rallied around the belief that “poverty was an economic issue for all.” This was the first time she witnessed a diverse group of community members that understood the negative impact of Savannah’s stagnant poverty rate. She thought there was definitely something to this idea and she was happy to be a part of it. It was this task force that would eventually become Step Up Savannah, Inc.

Since then Sister Pat believes that “Step Up has raised the consciousness of the community.” Through poverty simulations and collaborations, Step Up keeps poverty a part of all community discussions. She credits Step Up with helping the community to understand the barriers faced by low-income individuals in Savannah. The staff of St. Mary’s is grateful for the long-lasting relationships established by Step Up, which transcend socio-economic differences to find solutions that benefit all members of our community.

The partnership between St. Mary’s and Step Up is still strong today. Today, we partner with St. Mary’s in the following capacities:

Public Benefit Screening – St. Mary’s serves as one of the community’s SNAP and Healthy Kids enrollment sites. Kimberly (pictured below), a client of St. Mary’s, shared how St. Mary’s helped her navigate the system to acquire health insurance for her family. When her _RBC7327daughter was diagnosed with meningitis, St. Mary’s assisted her in securing health insurance. This prevented the family from accruing thousands of dollars of medical debt. Kimberly said that St. Mary’s is “very nice and easy to work with. They helped me get a lot of things done that I couldn’t do. They submitted our paperwork and for over a month followed up to make sure my daughter had the insurance she needed.” The SNAP and National League of Cities grants secured by Step Up help St. Mary’s to continue this very important work and help many more people just like Kimberly.

Workforce Development – In addition to the monthly caseload handled by Mary Fuller (pictured below), St. Mary’s Workforce Developer, St. Mary’s also partners with our Chatham Apprentice Program (CAP) to host a four-week workforce-training program on-site.

Volunteer Tax Assistance – In collaboration with Neighborhood Improvement Association and Step Up, St. Mary’s serves as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site in January and February.

Step Up’s partnership with St. Mary’s has existed for ten years, but Sister Pat says that it is important that this work continues. It is a marathon, not a sprint. “I’ve been working 16 years,” said Sr. Pat, “and I don’t feel that I’ve scratched the surface. But I believe in people’s goodness, and where there is goodness, hope is going to grow.”

Together, Step Up Savannah and St. Mary’s Community Center want to be a part of that growing hope.

You can become a part of that growing hope as well. Let us help you. Fill out our Commit to Action form here and together we will create opportunity in Savannah.

Images courtesy of Blake Crosby Photography.

Challenges and Changes in Kids’ Health Insurance

February 10th, 2015 by

Since November, I have been working on Mayor Jackson’s Campaign for Healthy Kids & Families, a county-wide initiative to promote free and low-cost health insurance to children and teens.  Our goal is to cut in half the number of eligible but unenrolled kids in Savannah/Chatham County by December 2015.

I joined Step Up Savannah’s staff as an AmeriCorps VISTA in part because I was attracted to the campaign.  Giving disadvantaged kids an opportunity to have a better life is something that I feel strongly about.  (I am also involved with a small nonprofit group that sends poor kids to school in the Philippines.)  My initial thought was that getting families to sign up their kids for free healthcare would be a fairly straightforward task.  I have discovered that it is anything but that.

Connecting with parents to get their children enrolled in Right from the Start Medicaid or PeachCare is at the heart of this campaign.  We have asked hospitals, churches, schools, libraries, juvenile courts, private employers and the media to help us with this task.  At the same time, we have realized that parents face challenges signing up on their own.  There are parents who don’t understand or get frustrated by the insurance application process or who initially get denied.  They usually don’t try again.  There are parents who are lucky to get insurance through their jobs but struggle with paying the premiums (particularly to keep their families insured).  Depending on their family size and income, many don’t even realize they qualify for PeachCare (for instance, a family of four can have household income of $58,000).  And then there are single parents (mostly women) who already struggle with putting food on the table every day and just plainly could use the help.

We are here to convince these parents that times have changed.  Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was implemented 14 months ago, more people are now qualified for public health insurance and many more have become aware of existing programs.  Over 10.1 million people have enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in the last 14 months.  Georgia alone had 197,000 enrollees even though Medicaid was not expanded in this state.  That number would be more if it was.

We know it’s not perfect.  As a matter of fact, the discussions on health insurance continue every day because it is a complex system.  However, I think it is encouraging to see that so many lives are being changed because we have made health care a priority in this country.  Let the rise in numbers speak for itself.

Shared Prosperity

December 9th, 2014 by


Step Up Savannah focuses on finding solutions and forging partnerships to reduce poverty in our community but the work is not without its challenges. For starters, the data paint a picture for us that can feel overwhelming.

Savannah has struggled for more than 30 years with deep pockets of poverty. The five-year census data shows our city with a poverty rate of 26.6%.  That’s about 31,118 people, more than live in many cities in Georgia.  We know too that there are neighborhoods in the county where 40 and 50 percent of families are living in poverty.

And then there are other data that tell a dramatically different story.  According to Conde Nast Traveler, Savannah has “got it all.” For the sixth straight year, it was named one of the top 10 U.S. cities and a “world class destination” for tourists with its history, shopping, nightlife and restaurants.

We read that the port of Savannah is the fastest growing in the country and some 30 Fortune-500 companies now have a presence in the area. Gulfstream, the area’s leading employer with more than 10,000 workers, is the midst of a $500 million expansion.

This is positive because, most people agree, a key ingredient to addressing poverty is a growing economy and Savannah seems to have that.  Yet all this fame and prosperity and growth doesn’t always trickle down to the everyday lives of the poor among us.  (OR:  doesn’t… translate??)

That one small city can contain such contradictions speaks volumes about the complexity of our work.

This is not an issue one organization can “solve.” Our organization takes a leadership role but even Step Up Savannah– which was well constructed to represent various segments of our community– cannot, on its own, reduce poverty.

This is our community’s issue to work on together, to find common goals and a way in for everyone to make a difference. But it starts with us asking ourselves some hard questions. What do we want to look like, Savannah?

Our median income is just $34,888 while the median income nationally is just over $53,000.  And remember those census tracts where 40 or more percent of residents are living below the poverty level?  That’s $23,850 a year for a family of four.

While we can claim some lower costs of living in the south, housing costs in Savannah remain high– so high, in fact, that more than 60 percent of our low-income renters are paying well over 30 percent of their incomes just on housing. We have 17,000 people on waiting lists for our public housing neighborhoods and Section 8 properties.

And while the local economy is apparently growing, unemployment and under-employment remain unacceptably high and we imagine what a culture of shared prosperity looks and acts like?

Healthcare matters

July 14th, 2014 by

More than 5,000 kids 18 and younger are uninsured in Chatham County, putting them at risk for preventable diseases, burdening families with financial distress resulting from medical bills and increasing costs to our hospitals (and taxpayers) for emergency room visits for routine care. A new initiative aims to change that.

A National League of Cities grant, just announced, will fund the Mayor’s Campaign for Healthy Children and Families to reduce by 50% the number of uninsured children in our county. Savannah is one of eight cities in the U.S. awarded these innovative grants that set 18-month goals to boost the numbers of eligible children and families enrolled in Medicaid and PeachCare.

Step Up, with its partner, Chatham County Safety Net Planning Council, the county’s healthcare collaborative, and City of Savannah staff produced the successful proposal. Key city departments such as the Public Information Office, the Citizen’s Office 311 service, plus enrollment and outreach partners will work hand-in-hand with community-based organizations, health clinics and hospitals to accomplish the ambitious enrollment gains.

Strategic points where kids and parents regularly intersect such as schools, health clinics, even public events will have information and direct families to trained enrollment assistance staff

Georgia lags behind other states in terms of health insurance coverage for children and families. Eleven percent of Georgia’s children are uninsured, representing 4.3% of the nation’s total population of uninsured children. Additionally, 23% of Georgia adults with dependent children are uninsured; 78% of Georgia’s uninsured children are eligible, but not enrolled in Medicaid or PeachCare.

Access to health insurance is a critical piece of the poverty puzzle–medical debt causes undue hardship, particularly on low-income families, and in most cases is avoidable by signing up for existing public health insurance programs. The National League of Cities grant funds raise the possibility of fostering real change and getting more eligible families signed up in our county.

Getting Around: Transport Matters

March 18th, 2014 by

Did you know that 15 of the 20 metro areas that rank the lowest in transit coverage and job access in the U.S. are located in the South?  Transportation is one of the more significant challenges that low-income families face today; the issues are layered and involve residential location in relation to higher-wage employment opportunities, travel distances, and access to different types of transportation.

Put simply, whether it’s finding a job, getting to work, grocery shopping or getting children to daycare, transportation and the time it takes to get from home to wherever makes a huge difference in people’s lives.

Every family requires transportation but it can pose greater challenges to those living in poverty, particularly if they must rely exclusively on public transit. But transportation isn’t just a problem for those who lack access; it’s a community-wide concern. Inadequate public transit, a lack of different types of transportation, and congested roads affect the entire economy; harm both the rich and poor.

Innovative approaches to addressing inadequate transit are much needed and can make a difference. There are roughly 160 nonprofit groups across the country that focus on providing affordable or even free used cars to needy families.

Unfortunately these initiatives are not widely accessible to Savannah’s low-income families (although some area churches and other nonprofits provide used cars as part of broader charitable efforts).

Here are some successful programs from around the country that are helping needy families get around:

  • Vehicles For Change refurbishes donated cars and awards them to low-income families in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. VFC empowers families with financial challenges to achieve economic and personal independence through car ownership and technical training. This program repairs cars that meet quality standards and award them for as little as $750 to eligible families who are referred by social service agencies. Since 1999, VFC has awarded cars to more than 4,400 low-income families, affecting the lives of more than 15,000 people.
  • The Caring Cars Program in Alabama, Madison County provides cars to low-income families for transportation to jobs. This program is for families who cannot afford to buy a car or cannot qualify for a traditional car loan. Each family receiving a car is charged a small down payment and low monthly payments at 0% interest to cover program costs.
  • Wheels for Work, a program in Tioga County, N.Y., helps low-income Tioga County families get or maintain a reliable car needed to maintain employment. This program assists with car loans, car insurance, car repairs, defensive driving course fees, and driver’s education fees. Participants need to be TANF recipients, 21+ yrs, have a qualifying child in the house, working at least 25 hours per week, qualify to own the vehicle, and have a “clean” valid driver’s license.
  • Ready To Go is a program for individuals and families in Vermont. Much of Vermont is rural and most communities are not served at all by public transit. Ready To Go drivers use donated Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler minivans to schedule rides for clients to essential life activities. They provide more than 30,000 rides annually across the state and work in partnership with the Vermont Department for Children and Families, Economic Services Division to provide this service.

These are just a few of the programs that focus on providing transportation assistance to those living in poverty around the nation. There are other ways to help families in need of better transportation. In a city like Savannah, where public transportation can be challenging (and there are such differences between services on the Southside, Downtown and Midtown areas), a transportation assistance program would be a great opportunity to help move folks out of poverty, while also assisting those barely getting by, get around in an effort to better their circumstances.


Is Social Mobility a Thing of the Past?

February 21st, 2014 by

Our nation has been built on the notion that each generation has the opportunity to climb a rung or two on the proverbial social ladder. However, lately it does not seem to be the case that young people–those of us in our 20s and younger–have the same hope of social mobility that our own parents did. Certainly the stubbornly high unemployment rates both here in Savannah and around the country are part of the problem. But there seem to be other forces at work.

President Obama recognized the decline in the state of the middle class in his 2014 State of the Union address.  In his speech he made reference to the ‘Great Recession’ and how, even before then, “massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.”  These ‘weak economic foundations’ seem to be hurting the possibility of achieving social mobility as increasing numbers of people are stuck in the same income bracket in which they were born.

In a recent national survey, PEW Charitable Trusts cited economic security as one of the factors that determines the likelihood of social mobility in the U.S. – along race, education, and income levels. A basic tenet of our values has been that those who work hard can achieve success; however, that notion appears to be threatened by the influence of these factors. PEW reported that 70 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder never make it to the middle.

Economic security in the family has long been a critical factor to social mobility. Individuals that saved had a higher likelihood of moving at least to the middle quintile. Parents with savings also indicated a higher likelihood of moving upwards. Race was an additional factor for mobility, with sixty-eight percent of whites leaving the bottom of the social ladder, compared with 45 percent of blacks. These statistics seem to indicate that the ‘American Dream’ is not truly equal. Income seems to be a fairly obvious indicator of social mobility, as those that earn more have a greater likelihood of moving upwards. Finally, education is also a factor in social mobility. Individuals with a college degree are much more likely to attain upward mobility with 86 percent of graduates leaving the bottom quintile. This statistic is telling of the shift in our national mindset. Previously, a college education was not necessary to move up the social ladder and now without one there is an unofficial guarantee of no mobility.

The ideology of the American dream has been rooted in our culture from the very founding of our nation and many people still view it as a possibility. 40 percent of Americans still consider it common for a person in the US to start poor, work hard and become rich which shows how powerful and pervasive that notion truly is.

As one of Step Up Savannah’s AmeriCorps VISTAs, Cierra Selby, says, “I don’t think moving from low-income to middle-class is impossible…but I will say that it is easier said than done.”

It seems that today the hope of the American Dream and what it represents are still very much alive. However, the reality is that many people are not able to experience any real upward mobility due to a variety of factors that are out of their control.

To read the full brief from The PEW Charitable Trusts click here

Tis the Tax Season with the VITA program

January 3rd, 2014 by

With the holidays now behind us and the New Year in gear,  it is time to prepare for the upcoming Income Tax Season which officially begins January 31st. That’s right! The Neighborhood Improvement Association and the Savannah Coastal Empire Asset Development Coalition bring the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program to Savannah from January to April. The Savannah Coastal Empire Asset Development Coalition has been in existence for 11 years and has been providing this free income tax service to Chatham County communities since its inception. The VITA Program offers free tax help to individuals and families with a total income of $58,000 or less.

The program’s most valuable asset is its volunteers. Volunteer tax preparers make the VITA program successful in every way. Many of our volunteer tax preparers come from a variety of backgrounds and expertise, and share the common goal of wanting to strengthen the community and help low- to moderate-income families in Savannah. VITA provides a comprehensive two-part training that give volunteers everything they need to become a certified IRS volunteer tax preparer. Training for this program begins on Monday, Jan. 6. For more information on volunteering contact Cierra Selby at (912) 401-0672 or by e-mail at cselby@stepupsavannah.org.

If you are a person who could use help filing your annual income taxes, and meet the income requirement, VITA volunteers are here to help for free. Volunteers are trained to help taxpayers receive all the credits to which they are entitled, including the Earned Income Tax Credit. Returns are e-filed for fast refunds.  For more information contact NIA at (912) 447-5577  to find a site near you.

Whether you choose to volunteer with VITA this year, or want to receive free income tax preparation, you are helping to build a financially sound community. VITA plans to make this tax season a successful one with your help. Happy New Year!

Hello Savannah: Welcome 3 new VISTA Associates

November 19th, 2013 by

Three AmeriCorps VISTA Associates have joined Step Up’s staff to assist in workforce development, wealth building, and policy research and communications initiatives. The VISTA associates will not only work alongside staff in these key areas over the next year but will work with partner organizations as well.

The associates hail most recently from Atlanta, Maryland, and Savannah. Diana Oladokun, workforce development associate, will help to build the capacity of the Centers for Working Families network as well as work to augment volunteer GED tutoring programs in the area. Erica Tremble will be conduting policy research on a range of issues affecting low-income families and assisting with Step Up’s Residents Team. Cierra Selby will build on the financial education network, assist in financial literacy classes, and in coordinating efforts for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance coalition.

“This is our second year as a VISTA site,” said Daniel Dodd-Ramirez, executive director. “Our organization and our partners gain valuable expertise with these three individuals. We welcome the passion and fresh ideas that these women bring to our work in Savannah.”

The AmeriCorps VISTA program falls under the federal Coporation for National and Community Service, which engages more than 1.5 million individuals annually to meet community needs in education, public safety, the environment, and increasing economic opportunity in low-income neighborhoods. According to its website, the Corporation commits more than $27,000,000 annually to support Georgia communities through service initiatives such as AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America.

Erica Tremble

Erica Tremble

Diana Oladokun

Diana Oladokun

Cierra Selby

Cierra Selby

What can we do about our city’s poverty?

October 1st, 2013 by

Like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, the new local poverty rates were released Thursday to an eerie quiet. Unless you were looking for a report it’s quite likely you heard next to nothing.

The distressing news is the numbers of people living in poverty in Savannah went up; almost a third of our population is living at or below the federal poverty level. The antidote is action; we can do something about it.

The signs of distress are everywhere, you just have to look around, and listen. First, the raw numbers: While the poverty rate nationally remained flat at 15% it increased in Georgia to 19.2% (fifth worst poverty rate in the country) and in Savannah jumped to 28.6%. Our median income, at $33,000-$34,000, remains far below the national (just over $51,000), which has dropped steeply since the Great Recession. Meanwhile our  state and local unemployment rates have hovered between 8-9% for far too long even as the national rate has gone down. Clearly some folks are gaining or just holding on while far more are sinking.

The numbers tell one story. People’s experiences offer a richer narrative. Like the gentleman who came to our office seeking assistance whose van was recently repossessed. Though he’d been paying the fees and interest timely each month on his loan for over two years he stumbled, and then lost his only means of transportation to work. Then there are the unscrupulous characters that we’ve heard are charging as much as $70 to Spanish-speaking families in west Savannah to “help” them apply for food stamps and Medicaid, using the state’s online service, which is free, and supported at no cost by several direct service providers in our community.

Many of those who have recently fallen below the poverty line (officially that’s just over $23,000 a year for a family of four) are likely just there briefly. The census bureau tells us that millions of Americans live through short bursts of poverty, two months or so at a time on average. We also know that many jobs are being cut to part-time–almost 17% of Americans who worked part-time year-round in 2012 lived in poverty. Add to that factors such as low educational attainment–almost 15% of our city’s adults have less than a high school education–and lower-wage jobs, and a picture of what needs to be done starts to form.

Still, we have to be willing to stop and listen, and think, what does this mean to me?

The major factors contributing to poverty are employment, and wages, and our economy. It’s not too complicated. Without full-time jobs most of us can’t pay for housing, goods or services, weak demand puts more pressure on the economy. A robust economy generates jobs, but we also need jobs that pay decently.

Savannah is a small enough city that our actions truly matter. Put another way, each of us can do something, and any of us with the capacity should. Step Up Savannah, the poverty reduction initiative, has been working with its partners to offer meaningful job training that includes employability skills, an array of financial literacy workshops, and worked to bring in more dollars to support successful programs. We served more than 12,000 people in 2012.

Can we attract more jobs? Can we do a better job of assisting entrepreneurs? What about offering micro-loans? Are more local businesses willing to take a chance and hire individuals without a GED or who may have a criminal record? Can we do a better job of engaging and educating our children so they can earn the degrees they need to command the wages needed to be self sustaining?

One of my favorite works of street art in Savannah is a sign that reads, “I know Savannah can do good and bad but they can get better. I LOVE West Savannah”

I’d extend that love to the whole city—but really, we can do better.

Suzanne Donovan is deputy director, policy and communications, for Step Up

Savannah, the city’s poverty reduction initiative.