By William K. Alcorn
The Mahoning-Youngstown Community Action Partnership is, like the Phoenix bird of Greek mythology, rising from the ashes.
But MYCAP still has a way to go before it can fully spread its wings.
The anti-poverty agency remains under investigation by the Ohio Department of Education, which after an initial audit, said MYCAP owed $879,547 in connection with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded child- and adult-feeding and summer feeding programs it operated.
The results of a second ODE audit, which the state agency did in attempt to get the issue resolved, have been sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The hope of MYCAP Executive Director Robin Renee Walton is that the ODE finding for recovery will be waived.
The anti-poverty agency contends that no money is missing or was misspent and that the problem resulted from poor record keeping.
The local agency submitted a corrective action plan containing a schedule to repay $90,380 over five years in connection with the Summer Food Service Program, the terms of which ODE accepted, Walton said. The action reduces the overall amount ODE says MYCAP owes to $789,167.
“We are hopeful our good-faith effort of repaying the $90,380 will encourage ODE to appeal the $789,167 payback on the federal level,” she said.
Walton said previously that MYCAP does not have enough unrestricted revenue with which to repay such a debt, and if the finding is upheld, it could be forced into bankruptcy.
The agency has gone through many changes over the past three years.
The ODE investigation led to the resignation of several board members and the board’s dismissal of several senior executive staff members including its executive director in May 2010.
The MYCAP board then hired a consulting firm, which provided an interim director and fiscal officer tasked with putting MYCAP back on the right track policy- and financial-wise.
The groundwork for a potential comeback in place, Walton took over the agency in April 2012.
While the $789,167 remains the elephant in the room, Walton said the relationship with ODE has progressed from adversarial to cooperative, and she is optimistic the issue will be resolved and leave MYCAP intact.
Walton said while the problem remains that could put MYCAP out of business, the agency is continuing with its business and moving forward with its mission.
“We are no longer consumed and paralyzed by it,” she said.
Moving forward means continuing to serve clients by developing relationships with other agencies and developing new programs and tools that will not only help people in crisis situations, but will supply the support and tools to help clients begin to extract themselves from the situational or generational poverty in which they find themselves, Walton said.
While MYCAP lost governance of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, the anti-poverty agency is closing one preschool Head Start program and hoping to open a new one in the Youngstown schools.
Being in the schools would help the children get acclimated to the school where they will attend kindergarten. It would help parents who have other children in the school because they would only have to take kids to one place, said Lois Clark, Head Start director.
Walton said the agency’s leadership team has been revamped to better serve its clients.
She said some of its members have changed positions to better utilize their skills and some new people have come on board and are beginning to think alike.
“There were great people when I came here, and great people have been added,” she said.
The agency still has crisis programs, such as its Heat Energy Assistant Program, to help people with utility bills, but is now taking the services to another level to help people out of poverty, Walton said.
The Community Services Block Grant now allows conditions to be placed on the benefits it provides, said James Johnston, director of planning and development.
For example, clients must participate in financial literacy classes. The point is to provide assistance at the time of crisis and then, through education, training and counseling, get them out of the situation that caused the crisis, Johnston said.
“We’re looking at sustainability so they don’t fall further and further into poverty. We’re trying to provide skills so they may not have to come to MYCAP next year,” said Sheila Triplett, chief operating officer.
This is not a “gotcha” mindset on the agency’s part, Walton said.
“The key is having a staff that is sensitive and doesn’t blame people for being poor. Our job is to show them a path out. We stay with them 18-24 months,” Walton said.
Johnston said MYCAP is also working to connect with all community service providers.
“We’re trying to come up with a database to avoid duplication of services available elsewhere. If we’re serious about removing barriers, we will work together,” he said.
Among MYCAP’s resources to help people out of poverty are its Minority Business Assistance Center, where someone who cleans homes can learn how to expand it into a business with employees; and the Workforce Development Program.
The focus is on financial management, said Chauncey Hilson, MBAC director.
“We help people learn how to live within their means but at a level to create additional resources so when a crisis comes they have something to fall back on,” he said.
The WDP also teaches work- related skills, such as adaptability, appearance, attendance, attitude and behavior, productivity and teamwork, for which employers are looking.
Walton, responding to comments that employers can’t find enough drug-free and trained employees, said MYCAP does training and drug testing of its Workforce Development clients.
“I challenge every employer in the Valley to become partners with MYCAP,” she said.