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A Bridge to Somewhere

October 14, 2009
Author: Sally Rudney

Author: Sally Rudney

Last week, The Montgomery County Community Foundation (MCCF) hosted a roundtable discussion titled “Lemons to Lemonade.” When we came up with that title a few months ago, little did we know that our optimistic words wouldn’t begin to capture the truly inspiring work of three of our grantees working to build community and access to essential services in these really tough times.

Through our Neighbors in Need Montgomery Fund, we’re supporting “The Neighbors Campaign,” which I truly believe is a model of collaboration and community-connecting worthy of national attention and replication. What we’re seeing here is Montgomery County nonprofits, funders, and government agencies coming together to help our most vulnerable residents directly while also empowering them to help themselves and each other.

The truth is that many of the county’s most economically vulnerable residents, many of whom are immigrants, are incredibly isolated, and they don’t know how to access social services that can help them and/or they have misconceptions about what might happen if they accept public assistance.

The Neighbors Campaign is the brain trust of IMPACT Silver Spring, The Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, County Executive Ike Leggett’s Office of Community Partnerships and the Neighbors In Need Montgomery Fund. The project began with a door-knocking campaign in low-income apartment high-rise buildings, in which community residents – facilitators, really — joined with IMPACT’s team to, door-by-door, make sure that tenants in need were aware of services such as emergency cash assistance and food and meal programs available to them. It also works to connect neighbors with neighbors, in buildings where isolated families might never meet one another. At the same time, the County Human Services department, together with key neighborhood nonprofits, established three strategically located service centers (with more planned) where residents can access services in a culturally-sensitive environment.

As a result, the community facilitators serve as “bridges” between residents and the service centers, and are central to Neighbors Exchanges – informal meetings where residents in need gather to help one another problem-solve while at the same time fostering and strengthening a spirit of true “community.”

In the end, this project is systems-reform at its best. Barriers are crumbling – nonprofits, government agencies, community organizers, funders, and community residents are talking to each other and working together. What’s more, county-based emerging, minority-led nonprofits are stabilizing and growing their operations through investments from funders and by playing a central role in bringing the various “players” together.

So much more work needs to be done and, as the collaborative team reports, the work remains incredibly difficult, as it deals with issues of race, class, politics, and the challenges of working together across the different cultures of government, community organizing, and direct service providers. And, while we’ve made great progress, the need out there remains astronomical.

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