By Crissy Neville
We all look to connect to something, or to someone, these days. A connection can be who you are related to or who you know, a union of ideas, or even the way two things join together in a continuous manner. This all comes to mind when stepping into Connections of Cumberland County (CCC), a nonprofit day resource center for homeless women and children in Fayetteville that helps to make important connections occur every day.
At Connections, women and children who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless are on the receiving end of life-changing links to everyday necessities and vital community resources. This can include connections to food, shelter, transportation, employment, mental health services, and more.
It all started as a result of research conducted by the Women’s Giving Circle of Cumberland County on the basic needs of local women and children. When the research revealed alarming statistics on homelessness, a committee was birthed from the Women’s Circle to start Connections. The agency’s doors opened in July of 2014.
The nonprofit’s good work is made possible by a pool of community volunteers and student interns. With a limited operating budget stemming from grants and donors, the agency relies on unpaid interns from local and distant colleges and universities to deliver case management and counseling services. These individuals help carry out the mission of CCC and are its hands and feet.
Coming full circle, the interns also make connections of their own. The internships lead to college credits, real-world experiences and career development for the students’ future employment. These master and bachelor level students, in turn, deliver life-improving services to those who need it most. This essential program at Connections is referred to as Connect- 2- Internship (C21).
Executive Director Crystal Bennett explained more about the intern initiative.
“As good stewards of our community’s resources, we constantly seek ways to do more with every donation and grant we receive,” she said. “In order to serve high-traffic numbers at our day resource center and reduce staffing costs, our C21 program coordinates with universities all over America to connect interns to comprehensive case-management work.”
The program has sponsored 57 student interns since January 2015, providing nearly 13,000 hours of service. Nineteen universities partner with the agency including Methodist and Fayetteville State as well as schools as far away as California and New York. Students may stay and work anywhere from four months to a full year, depending on the individual program requirements.
It all began with Crystal Lassetter, the first intern in 2015, who upon graduation with a Master of Social Work degree, became one of CCC’s two full-time staff members.
Lassetter, the case management and field placement coordinator at Connections, talked about the vital role the interns play.
“The interns are the liaisons that set the community resource connections in place,” she said. “As case managers, they assess each client first and then work to set up a stabilization plan – what we call a roadmap – to help them set goals and alleviate barriers they may encounter. As they work with the individual or family, the interns begin to advocate for them at other agencies depending on the needs.”
The other agencies can include the Department of Social Services, Urban Ministries, the Salvation Army, and the Housing Authority, among others. There are a plethora of resources available in the community but the key is “knowing how to navigate them,” Lassetter said.
Connections staff strive not to duplicate these community services but rather to help clients find them and utilize them. Case manager interns may help clients with needs ranging from securing ID cards and vital documents such as birth certificates to bigger demands such as maintaining or obtaining housing.
Some interns and other volunteers engage in a more intensive case-management process with referred clients who commit to a two-year initiative known as Connect-2-Redirect (C2R). Important to this process is the C.A.R.E. (Coaching, Accountability, Resources and Empowerment) team that provides a foundation of services and immediate housing for single mothers if approved for admission.
The C2R component of Connections of Cumberland County has a current need for a volunteer coach as well as other volunteers throughout the year. Volunteers may apply using the online form and the background check consent form found at www.connectionsofcc.org. Volunteers can assist in grant writing, fundraising, day center operations, technology, mentoring, life coaching, real estate and more.
What else happens at the day resource center? When clients are not meeting with their case managers they may be found in the facility, which is housed at the historic Cool Spring Tavern property on North Cool Spring Street, using the kitchen, computer lab or children’s play space. They may attend a career exploration session on resume writing, interview skills or time management. Other options are attending counseling or women's empowerment classes when offered. Often clients come to chat or check in with their caseworker with whom they develop a good rapport and friendship. Finally, thanks to a new start-up enterprise at Connections, clients will soon be able to assist with volunteer work when on site, if they so choose.
Connect-2-Enterprise (C2E) is the final connection piece and is the one that Bennett hopes will help launch clients into avenues for employment themselves. The program offers online public shopping at the newly founded “For Goodness Sakes, Shop!” where new and gently used items such as jewelry, designer shoes, handbags and collectibles have been donated for resale. The store can be found online at www.ebay.com/str/forgoodnesssakeshop. All proceeds from the online store will go directly to Connections of Cumberland County. Skill training for clients will be offered to teach them about business operations and allow them to give back time to the agency if they so choose. The idea may prompt them to try their own hand at an online store or in-home business.
Following in Lassetter’s footsteps, intern Ieshia West from Methodist University has accepted a part-time position as the C2E manager and volunteer coordinator. A recent graduate in the Bachelor of Social Work program, West credits her time at Connections with her decision to work with the homeless sector.
“I did not know much about this population prior to coming here but now I am passionate about working with them,” she said. “I feel I am part of something special at Connections and I do not want to leave.”
Masters level intern Shaneka Smith has similar sentiments. Working on her degree from Delaware State University’s online program, Smith relates well to her clients due to her own history.
“I was in the situation of homelessness myself before so I feel I am in a good place to help,” she said. “I enjoy developing one-on-one relationships with my clients and helping them set individual goals, just like I am reaching my own goals through a lot of hard work and dedication.”
Connections of Cumberland County interns like these are helping to make a difference for homeless women and children in the Fayetteville area. You might say they connect the dots in order to improve the lives of others, and their own.