Ava McCall 2017

Ava McCall

Ed. Notes- Dr. Ava McCall is no stranger to our newsletter. She first appeared in the Fall 1999 KIDS Newsletter issue. Her topic then was "Teaching Teachers About Hunger." Since then she has been "walking the talk." She not only has been a friend and supporter of KIDS, but has sent countless teachers back to their classrooms armed with the KIDS program. While this is her first appearance in this publication, we are positive that she will grace these pages for years to come.

More Than a Food Pantry: Coaching Clients Toward Stability

By Ava L. McCall

Food pantries are an important community resource for people who struggle to meet their basic need for food. However, they do not address the root causes of poverty, such as a federal minimum wage that does not meet workers’ basic living expenses, the lack of affordable housing, the absence of reliable, affordable public transportation so people can travel to work, or the dearth of access to a high-quality education. In my local community, the largest food pantry is moving beyond helping residents meet their need only for food by also offering to coach clients toward self-sufficiency by meeting all their basic needs.

The coaching program began in September, 2016 with 30 pantry clients participating in the program since it began. On an average, 3,100 adults are served by the pantry each month. The pantry staff recognized that clients came to the pantry not only in need of food, but with other needs, such as a job, additional education or job skills, housing, or an ill child. Pantry staff wanted to connect clients with other area resources more efficiently and make them more effective for their clients. They wanted to avoid clients spending time traveling from one community resource to another, trying to solve all the problems keeping them in poverty.

One of the pantry staff members, Hope, provides the coaching for clients, along with a volunteer advocate who volunteers one day a week at the pantry. When new clients come to the pantry to register for food, a pantry staff member conducts an intake process to find out what other needs they have besides food, the community agencies they have already worked with to meet their needs, and to determine if they would be an appropriate fit for the coaching program. Clients are assured they will receive food even if they decline coaching. Coaching is a client and goal-driven process; those who choose to participate must be motivated and engaged. The pantry coaches must establish trust with clients to allow for the sharing of important information and emotions. Clients must sign a waiver agreeing that the coach can share information with other community partners that can help clients reach their goals. This alleviates the need for clients to repeat their story each time they meet with a different community agency.

Once clients begin the coaching process, Hope listens to each person’s story to discuss and take steps toward meeting their goals, dreams, and needs. They consider what the clients have done to address their needs and the clients’ household budget. In addition, they examine how well the client is meeting the various components to be self-sufficient, such as having an adequate income for basic needs plus additional income to save. Hope asks clients to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 on the core areas of self-sufficiency. Some of these areas include money management, employment, and transportation. Following this self-evaluation, she then asks clients which areas they want to focus on first because they rated these areas lower on the self-evaluation. Most clients lack personal support systems and knowledge of available community resources. Hope serves as an initial support system to talk with clients about their goals and steps to achieve them. Clients usually meet regularly with a coach to work on their goal action plan. However, clients may contact their coach outside their regular meeting times to discuss any questions, difficulties, or progress anytime the pantry is open. Fortunately, the pantry is open each day of the week except for Friday and Sunday and is open late on Mondays.

Since the coaching program began, one pantry client graduated from the program because he met all his goals, has a job, and is able to pay for all his living expenses. Another client is making good progress toward her goals of getting a better paying position and paying off her debts. Once Hope helped the client make connections to scholarship programs, technical schools, and financial management resources, the client applied for and received a scholarship for a Certified Nursing Assistance Program and was accepted at the local technical school to work on her Associate’s Degree. In addition, the client began working with FISC, a Goodwill program in our area that helps residents learn financial management, who assisted her in developing a plan to pay off her debts as well as how to manage her finances. Yet another client needed housing and Hope guided him in finding a place to live, along with the financial assistance needed to pay for it. A fourth client received support from Hope as he revised his resume significantly and made additional job contacts, which eventually led to a new job.

Although the pantry’s coaching program is not solving the problem of a federal minimum wage that does not allow workers to meet all their basic needs nor the lack of reliable, affordable public transportation, it is moving beyond providing only food and connecting pantry clients to other community resources, such as affordable housing and better educational opportunities. One client at a time, the coaching program is helping people who struggle to meet their basic needs move toward self-sufficiency.

Ava McCall is a Distinguished Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Following her retirement from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, she serves on the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry board and volunteers in a fourth-grade classroom in Oshkosh to help teach Wisconsin history. Ava and her husband enjoy riding bike trails in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, and Florida. After taking their first biking tour of Italy in 2016, they hope to extend their bike riding to other countries in the future.

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