Author: Central New York Community Foundation

CNY Vitals is an initiative of the Central New York Community Foundation. The Central New York Community Foundation is a tax-exempt public charity. Its mission is to foster a thriving Central New York community, inspire greater giving, celebrate legacy and steward charitable resources for today and tomorrow.

Eviction Part 2: The Eviction Moratorium, CARES Act and More

This is part two of a two-part series that takes an in-depth look at evictions and how they contribute to the health of Central New York, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a financial crisis for many families. Read more to see how both renters and landlords can avoid evictions and create a better region with higher property values, safer housing and more economic opportunities. Click HERE to read the first part of the series.

Evictions aren’t always avoidable, but in some cases the tenants and landlords just need more information in order to prevent a disaster. Along with ensuring access to safe housing and preventing homelessness, helping residents avoid evictions in Central New York is a major goal for both the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County (VLP) and The Syracuse Tenants Union (STU). Both organizations are distributing information and offering counsel to help tenants live in sustainable housing and avoid red marks on their housing resumés, especially during this turbulent time of a national pandemic and financial crisis.

STU is in the process of creating a tenants’ handbook that gives specifics to rental property tenants on how to make sure they are protected. The handbook, which is currently in production, offers a comprehensive list of what the tenants should know, including a description of their rights, how to seek legal counsel before they have a problem and the importance of keeping receipts and documenting interactions with landlords and Code Enforcement.

VLP offers trainings and legal counsel to residents facing eviction, as well as representation in court. If landlords assist their tenants by recommending counsel from VLP, they often can work out an agreement in which no one ends up in court. “The big goal for us is homelessness prevention,” said Sally Curran, executive director of VLP.

There are many complex laws and proceeds that the two organizations can help residents navigate.

For instance, the 2019 Housing Security and Tenant Protection Act was put into place to help families avoid homelessness and desperation by giving them additional time to plan prior to eviction. The new act gives tenants a 14-day warning, then 10-17 days of notice, a 14-day court adjournment and finally 14 days for tenants to leave. The act was designed to help residents comfortably relocate after researching a new property and building up funds. Previously, tenants were only allowed a few days of nonpayment before eviction proceedings began.

Any eviction can create issues if the tenant tries to rent or buy in the future. The eviction process for both tenants and landlords is time consuming and has major cost implications. Landlords nearly always have legal representation, yet the tenants rarely have counsel because they often can’t afford it. The outcome is that tenants, even if they show up to plead their case, may owe many months’ worth of back rent. The tenants will be asked to present documentation and receipts, yet without them they may not be able to prove hardship. “Having representation in court substantially changes the outcome for the tenants,” said Curran. “The misbalance of power without legal representation becomes really profound.”

After an eviction, tenants may owe thousands in back rent, but that could potentially be reduced if they have access to legal counsel. They also may not receive their hefty security deposit back (even if the code violations existed before they moved in originally), making it that much harder to find a new home. This is how a family may hurriedly choose another poorly kept property and continue the cycle of unreliable housing, putting their confidence and well-being at further risk.

The New York State Tenant Safe Harbor Act, which was established during the COVID-19 crisis to place a temporary moratorium on evictions, is not a free ride. It simply means that you can’t be evicted until after the pandemic crisis has passed. The moratorium is helpful in that it is specifically designed to keep people out of a homeless situation during a pandemic. According to the moratorium, which started on March 16, 2020, no renter who is unable to pay their rent due to circumstances caused by COVID-19 will be evicted until Governor Cuomo changes the terms. The end date of the moratorium has been pushed forward to January 1, 2021 at the time of this article’s release.

The moratorium is not a rent waiver, despite popular belief. If a tenant can pay their rent, then they should pay. At the end of the moratorium, VLP expects that its services will be even more necessary because these renters will need to provide documentation in court proving that it was an unavoidable hardship that caused their non-payment.

Regardless, tenants must pay their unpaid rent at some point. The Act states: “A court can never use unpaid rent that accrued during the COVID-19 period as the basis for a non-payment eviction of a financially burdened tenant; however, a court could impose a money judgment.” While the moratorium is helpful, there’s little chance that people can navigate this information well. Palmer Harvey of The Syracuse Tenants Union states, “The written legal terms of the moratorium don’t make sense to the average person. They need a version in laymen’s terms.” There are currently one million people in NYS who need rental assistance.

In addition, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act may also provide additional funding to offset the burden of unpaid rent. The CARES Act was passed by Congress and signed into law on March 27, 2020. This economic relief package delivers this administration’s commitment to protecting the public from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. The CARES Act provides economic assistance for workers, families and small businesses. The CARES Act should help those who are able to sufficiently document their inability to pay their rent, but with so many in New York State who need rental assistance, the money could run out. Having legal representation for an eviction moratorium case will benefit the tenant greatly.

Legal representation from a case manager will reduce confusion around what could be a messy legal situation. Avoiding evictions, especially during a pandemic, helps to create a safe and healthy community for everyone, including landlords.

Landlords can help by addressing a situation before it turns into a legal undertaking; everyone will save time and money. Landlords can refer their tenants to VLP to speak with a case manager. Additionally, on September 14, 2020, Syracuse passed an additional renter protection: Now, landlords who have failed to register their one-and-two-family rental homes will be barred from evicting tenants if they do not participate in in the City’s rental registry.

Recently, the COVID-19 Community Support Fund provided grants to VLP and STU. STU is creating educational materials regarding evictions and renters’ rights. Both VLP and STU required personal protective equipment in order to meet with clients and conduct virtual court cases (in which the attorney is present with their client while the judge and landlord are virtual). VLP will also hire and pay law students to help with legal and pre-eviction counsel.

The COVID-19 Community Support Fund is a partnership of the Central New York Community Foundation, The United Way of Central New York, the Allyn Family Foundation, The Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation, the Health Foundation for Western & Central New York and the City of Syracuse & Onondaga County. They established the Fund to support nonprofit organizations working with communities who are disproportionately impacted by economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. To date, the fund has raised over $1.8 million from which vital funding is rapidly deployed to support the region’s greatest needs.

Curran states, “Fewer evictions means that in the long-term, Syracuse property values will go up, there will be more economic opportunities and the unhealthy wealth gap in Central New York will be lessened.”

For more information on STU, email syrtenantsunion@gmail.com or visit their Facebook page.

To contact the Volunteer Lawyers Project for legal counsel, visit their website or call 315.471.3409.

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Eviction: The Harsh Reality of Living in Syracuse

In this multi-part series, CNYVitals will take an in-depth look at evictions and how they contribute to the health of Central New York, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a financial crisis for many families. Read more to see how both renters and landlords can avoid evictions and create a better region with higher property values, safer housing and more economic opportunities.

Sixty percent of Syracuse residents are renters. According to the 2017 American Community Survey, about 20% of those renters move at least once per year, sometimes more. This is due to a combination of risk factors, such as low wages, inadequate public assistance, code enforcement violations and overpriced housing which have led to dire situations for both tenants and landlords. According to a 2017 study from the Maxwell Community Benchmarks Program, “Syracuse is severely residentially unstable.”

How can tenants live in safe housing that they can afford? And, how can landlords save themselves time and money by avoiding evictions? It’s a complicated problem but the answer may be that Syracuse-area residents can benefit the most if a solution is crafted with both renters and landowners in mind.

When a family is considering renting a home, they ideally would first sit down to decide what they can afford. But this isn’t always the case if they are in a desperate situation, such as fleeing abuse or high levels of lead. When a renter is anxious to put a roof over their heads, it changes the playing field for both tenants and landlords.

Several lending agencies recommend that the cost of an individual’s housing come in at around 30% of their gross income. According to Palmer Harvey, founder of the Syracuse Tenants’ Union, the average individual living in the city of Syracuse makes just over $20,000 per year, which means that if they are living on a single income, they should live in an apartment that costs about $480 per month. A two-bedroom apartment in Syracuse costs around $850 per month. Already, the issue is clear. A single-income family may need to spend upwards of 50% of their wages on housing, meaning less money is available to put food on the table. Since unplanned financial events could always be around the corner, it’s easy to see how a family in this scenario could get behind on their rent.

Public assistance is available to help people get into housing that they can’t quite afford, however it presents some challenges. According to deputy commissioner of the Department of Social Services – Economic Security and Temporary Assistance, Jennifer Robinson, the shelter allowance provided by New York State hasn’t been re-configured to accommodate the rising cost of living since 2012. For instance, a family with three children would receive $303 in housing assistance. This inadequate amount increases the risk of tenants entering housing with low maintenance or housing violations. Section 8 Housing can also be helpful by providing vouchers that cover the balance, but there is a long waiting list due to high demand for a limited number of housing vouchers, making them hard to utilize in an urgent situation.

Before a tenant moves into a residence, they can check the Syracuse city website to see exactly what the code violations are for the rental unit or landlord with whom they hope to work. But families in a desperate situation, or without easy access to the internet, may not be able to utilize this resource, leading them to enter unsafe housing. In any case, only about 40% of rental units are registered with the City – meaning many landlords are out of legal compliance and their code violations not necessarily tracked. “Syracuse is the dollar store of real estate,” said Harvey. “People can come here and buy a home for next to nothing, put in $1,000 and start to rent.”

This creates a problem for code enforcement divisions of Syracuse because there can be several “quick fixes” that can be done on a property to help it pass inspection. Landlords may fix a leak, snake a drain or patch a hole, but when the underlying causes aren’t addressed, it leaves the tenant with the same problem month after month.  Harvey says that usually, by the time a tenant has called code enforcement, they have likely been dealing with an issue for months without a fix from the landowner. Calling in problems and reporting landlords could magnify the chances that the tenant will face eviction, so it is often viewed by residents as a last resort.

According to the City of Syracuse study “Below the Line”, there are approximately 11,000 people displaced in Syracuse each year, which can result in over 6,000 children being evicted from their homes.

Evictions, according to Sally Curran, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP), can cause a long list of trickle-down problems for evicted families including job loss, depression, health issues and negative educational implications. Evictions affect a person’s ability to build intergenerational wealth by putting a negative mark on their record, which may change their ability to rent a more desirable apartment or buy a house in the future. This scenario can directly perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

What causes an eviction? Laura Rolnick, director of eviction & reentry programs for VLP, stated that 85-90% of evicted tenants simply cannot pay their rent. A much smaller percentage is due to a “hold-over” in which tenants were told to leave but didn’t, or a “claimed lease violation” in which the landlord has claimed that there was a violation of the lease.

The ideal approach is to avoid eviction altogether, but most tenants don’t know what their rights are when facing eviction. Many tenants are also not aware of the terms of their lease or agreement. A rental “lease” fixes the rental cost for the year and makes it harder for landlords to start eviction proceedings. A month-to-month agreement doesn’t provide as much protection to the renter, however notices from landlords are still required. Additionally, on September 14, 2020, Syracuse passed an additional renter protection: Now, landlords who have failed to register their one-and-two-family rental homes will be barred from evicting tenants if they do not participate in in the City’s rental registry. Palmer tells each of her clients: “If you don’t know your rights, you don’t have any.”

In part two of this story, we will look at the Eviction Moratorium, the CARES Act and the Tenant Safe Harbor Act. Check back soon for the next part of this series on evictions in Syracuse.

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Parenting Challenges Among New Americans

A new study conducted by local service providers and academic researchers examined the unique parenting challenges that Syracuse-based Somali, Bhutanese and Congolese refugees face while assimilating to a new culture. A summary of their findings and recommendations can be read below. To read the full whitepaper, click here

Recently, focus group discussions were held with Syracuse-based Somali, Bhutanese, and Congolese community members to learn from their unique experiences. Researchers sought to better understand the challenges of newly resettled refugee parents in hopes of developing intervention programs that will support their transition as New Americans. Of particular interest were the ways in which these refugee families experience parenting as they encounter and try to adapt to a new culture.

Each of the groups spoken with expressed similar parenting challenges. Language barriers, lack of community resources, and few vocational opportunities were identified as having a detrimental effect on their ability to provide for their families. Language barriers play a role in New Americans entering the job market in low paying positions such as housekeeping and janitorial services, and they struggle to make ends meet. They look to refugee community centers for support in the form of education and training to improve their social standing, but many of these centers have lost financial support.

Parents also expressed frustration with their lack of knowledge when trying to navigate the healthcare and public-school system, leaving some of them with feelings of powerlessness and mistrust. Others described how their children, who pick up language and cultural cues more quickly, sometimes intentionally manipulate information when they are asked to interpret information or concerns from the school system. As a result of inaccurate information and a lack of cultural knowledge, some refugee parents expressed great fear that their children would be taken away from them by child protective services (CPS).

Ammar with his daughter Ritaj at Sunnycrest Park.

 

While the challenges to refugees are many, the focus groups also identified ways to enhance local resources that might improve parenting among New Americans. All three groups expressed a need for culturally compatible parenting classes aimed at maintaining communication with children, negotiating expectations, communicating with medical and school systems, adapting parenting skills, and exploring alternative ways to discipline children.

Additionally, the groups stressed the need to focus on English language and literacy education for adults to achieve better paying jobs and economic self-sufficiency. Acknowledging cuts in funding to refugee service agencies, it was suggested that volunteer tutors and role models be recruited from settled families who would be willing to help teach English and share experiences.

All of the groups expressed a strong desire to maintain and share their language and unique cultural values with their children and saw opportunities to achieve these goals through developing and partnering with positive support networks in their refugee communities, incorporating afterschool culture and religious classes for their children, and providing regular opportunities for community members to engage with their children by coming together to celebrate their culture. They also saw a need to provide community education to institutions such as public schools and healthcare settings to enhance cultural competence and respect among service providers.

To read the full whitepaper, click here

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Brady Faith Center: Identifying a Pathway Out of Poverty

In 2017, the poverty rate on the Southwest side of Syracuse, which includes Census Tracts 42 and 53, averaged a startling 62.42 percent. The Brady Faith Center (Brady Faith), which is located within this region, has committed to serving neighborhood residents by identifying ways to collaborate and create plans to lead them out of poverty.

Walking the streets of the Southwest side of Syracuse every day is an ordinary practice for Kevin Frank, executive director of Brady Faith. He stands for the values of building kinship among himself, Brady Faith and the community. The organization emphasizes that to build trust with the community, you must be within it.

“It’s not doing for, it is being with,” said Frank. “We look at relationship building as our core outreach and meeting people where they are at.”

Kevin Frank, Executive Director, of The Brady Faith Center

From listening to residents, Brady Faith identified a need to create equitable change for women, men, and their families. To help, organization representatives set out to learn from Homeboy Industries, a Los-Angeles based organization that provides training and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated individuals, allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of their community, often through entrepreneurship.

Every year the organization hosts the Annual Global Homeboy Network Conference to educate other charitable groups about what has worked most effectively.

“It is just an amazing conference that communicates best practices from around the world for working with marginalized groups through entrepreneurship, healing, and support,” said Frank. “That really makes an impact in the lives of families, communities, and neighborhoods.”

The Central New York Community Foundation awarded a grant for nine Brady Faith team members to attend the conference. Frank says the funding not only supported the trip, but showed its dedication to improving the Southwest neighborhood for the better.

“We are really thankful for the Community Foundation for believing in us and supporting us on this journey,” he said. “The conference provided us with the building blocks to build a similar program locally and further our impact in the Syracuse community.”

Brady Faith intends to take what it learned and introduce entrepreneurial opportunities to community members with a criminal history or of limited resources. Frank explained that many of those individuals that face this prejudice are being denied employment, housing, and even education.

Emmanuel Flowers, Youth and Teen Co-Coordinator for The Brady Faith Center

 

In 2014, 20,675 males and 25,385 females were living in poverty in Syracuse, while the numbers dropped to 19,642 males and 20,032 females in 2017. This data shows that there has been a decrease in people living in poverty over the past three years – from 35 percent to 32.6 percent. Frank hopes that Brady Faith’s work will help progressively lower those numbers even further.

“People who are in this category are often people of tremendous faith, courage, and tenacity,” said Frank. “Some of them are the most spiritual and empathetic people I’ve ever met and have so much talent and many gifts to offer.”

By investing in these individuals, Frank believes that together they can create a pathway out of poverty where people can thrive, grow, and transform. The Homeboy models have proven to be successful and Frank strongly believes that they will do the same for the Syracuse community.

Brady Faith works to support the needs of Syracuse’s Southwest neighborhood by providing human development, educational and religious programs to residents. The center relies on a small staff and various community volunteers to fuel its mission of outreach. To learn more about Brady Faith Center, please visit bradyfaithcenter.org. To learn more about Homeboy Industries, visit homeboyindustries.org.

 

 

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Community Needs Assessment Enhanced with ‘Data Dating’; Nearly $120,000 in New Grants Will Help Nonprofits Measure

Enhancements to a community assessment tool, designed by the Central New York Community Foundation, are making it easier for area nonprofits to analyze their programming in real-time, ‘match’ with partner organizations, and evaluate the greatest concerns of those they serve.

Community assessment is a major focus of the Community Foundation’s Performance Management Learning Community (PMLC), now entering its eighth year. PMLC uses grant dollars and peer learning to help nonprofits measure their effectiveness.

PEACE, Inc., a federally-designated Community Action Agency that works to help people become more self-sufficient, joined PMLC last year to continue becoming data-structured from within. The organization’s goal was to help staff effectively track and measure the effectiveness of its food pantries, family resource centers, and programming for youth and seniors.

“The first objective within our organization’s strategic plan is to develop a data-driven culture,” said Todd Goehle, development coordinator at PEACE, Inc. “So we identified emerging leaders across our organization who could take what they’ve learned from PMLC and make it a part of our daily philosophy.”

After a year in PMLC, PEACE, Inc. consolidated database systems, which now allows staff members to collaborate across teams and with external organizations. In addition, the agency benefited greatly from the findings of PMLC’s community needs assessment, a measurement of which life needs—such as affordable long-term housing, addiction counseling, lead poisoning support, job readiness and economic independence—are not being adequately met for those living in poverty. PMLC participants can study responses to the needs assessment by neighborhood or census tract to complete pre-and post-program evaluation.

“When we evaluated the data that we and our PMLC partners gathered, it became clear to us that we needed to double down on our food pantries,” said Goehle. “We found that there is a real need for food and personal items within some neighborhoods of the city, and we need to increase our efforts to get funding that will allow us to increase our supplies.”

This fall, the Community Foundation released a whitepaper that examined the impact that can be made if social programs addressed the nuances within the areas where they work, as PEACE is doing.

Recently, the Community Foundation introduced new online enhancements to the assessment tool, which include access to interactive, real-time results. This allows nonprofits to take their analyses one step further. Nicknamed ‘data dating,’ organizations can quickly identify other participating organizations they ‘match’ with for collaboration, such as to fulfill a client need that they do not offer. The tool also makes information about program measurement accessible by all members within an organization, from front-line staff to executive directors, without the need for extensive training.

Goehle reports that he hopes to use the new interactive features to partner with organizations that have clients reporting needs that PEACE, Inc. can help provide.

“The data that we’re accumulating doesn’t necessarily reflect the community at large,” he said. “This tool gives us opportunities, especially with live mapping, to identify locations where interventions can be made.”

This year, seven organizations received a total of $118,756 in grants to join the next PMLC class: ACR Health ($20,000); Everson Museum ($15,000); Hiscock Legal Aid Society ($20,000); Mercy Works ($20,000); Madison County Health Department ($15,200); Northside Learning Center ($14,956); and Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York ($13,600).

The Community Foundation awards PMLC grants toward data measuring efforts, which include such things as database management and statistical analysis, to help nonprofits track their efforts and look for trends. This in turn assists the organizations in identifying what is working and what’s not, leading to the development of more effective programming and funding competitiveness. Applicants agreed to participate in a year-long learning community in order to qualify for a grant.

Another six organizations are joining PMLC Prep and PMLC Pro groups to learn how to collect community assessment responses and use the new interactive tool in new and innovative ways with $5,000 grants each: Huntington Family Center; On Point for College; PEACE, Inc.; Refugee & Immigrant Self-Empowerment; Southwest Community Center; Westcott Community Center; and Women’s Opportunity Center.

For organizations like PEACE, Inc., the PMLC collaboration is helping form new connections that will benefit the community as a whole.

“Sometimes in Syracuse, organizations tend to work in silos and there are not always a lot of opportunities to meet and exchange ideas,” Goehle said. “This provides us with an opportunity to all get to the table and examine through data how we can work through problems collectively.”

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Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Refugees

Between 2007 and 2016, Onondaga County became home to more than 9,500 refugees, consisting mostly of Burmese, Bhutanese and Somalian settlers[1]. That figure includes approximately 1,000 Iraqi and Afghan refugees who were affiliated with the United States military, as well as 250 refugees from the Syrian conflict[2]. A large portion of these refugees turned to local nonprofits for support to establish economic and social-self-sufficiency, long after the initial resettlement period.

English-as-a-New-Language (ENL) lessons and housing assistance are primary support services refugees have access to. While these services are critical, (70 different languages are spoken in the Syracuse City District[3]) and housing remains a difficult process, mental health services are far less common. The lack of adequate, culturally responsive mental health services is problematic as many arrive from countries where large scale violence, sexual assault and persecution are prevalent.

The consequences of these complex traumatic situations linger in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, substance abuse depression, and challenges in family relationships. Refugees are approximately ten times more likely than non-refugees to have PTSD[4] and three times more likely to develop depression and anxiety[5], while access to mental health treatment is limited due to a number of factors including language barriers, stigma and lack of appropriate training of psychotherapists.

To address this, Dr. Rashmi Gangamma, associate professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Syracuse University (MFT), approached the Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters (MAMI) to identify ways in which some of these barriers could be reduced.

Through a series of meetings with MAMI and members of the New American community, an idea emerged for a collaborative approach targeting two needs: training psychotherapy students to deliver culturally informed psychotherapy for refugee populations and training language interpreters to effectively interpret psychotherapy sessions with individuals, couples and families.

“Throughout our work we’ve noticed each family member has experienced different traumas and circumstances and they don’t always adapt at the same speed,” said Gangamma. “It’s important for us to spend time with each family member including parents, children and even extended family to target their specific issues.”

The Central New York Community Foundation provided MFT with a $19,760 grant to launch a free training workshop that brings together interpreters in training from MAMI and her psychotherapy students at SU to learn and work collaboratively. The workshop, launched in January 2019, will utilize the grant to continue operations over a full one-year cycle.

The project will be completed in three phases. Phase one includes planning for the workshop with MAMI and community members; phase two is the actual workshop offered to both interpreters from MAMI and psychotherapy students at SU; and phase three involves a follow-up to assess the impact of the workshop.

“I believe training in conjunction with the community’s interpreters will be crucial for both interpreters and for mental health clinicians in our community,” said Shaelise Tor, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University who has closely worked with Dr. Gangamma. “It’s been a great experience to work with a multidisciplinary team to craft this training, because we each bring our own areas of knowledge.”

The Marriage and Family Therapy Department at Syracuse University is the only provider of free family therapy services to the community in Syracuse and has been serving Onondaga County since 1969. The department maintains relationships with refugee centers in Syracuse including the Bhutanese Community Center and RISE to provide and assess the family therapy needs of those communities.

In collaboration with MAMI, who has served Central New York since 1998, MFT hopes to build a stronger relationship between its department, interpreters, and refugee populations to ensure long-term access to mental health solutions in Syracuse.

[1] CNY Vitals (https://cnyvitals.org/people/)

[2] CNY Vitals (https://cnyvitals.org/people/)

[3] Semuels, 2015, “The Refugees Who Come Alone”, (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/11/the-refugees-who-come-alone/415491/)

[4] Giacco & Priebe, “Mental Health Care for Refugees”, World Health Organization (http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/293271/Policy-Brief-Migration-Health-Mental-Health-Care-Refugees.pdf)

[5] Hameed, Sadiq, & Din, 2018, “The Increased Vulnerability of Refugee Population to Mental Health Disorders” Kansas Journal of Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5834240/)

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Literacy Council Addressing Low Test Scores in Cortland County

In rural Cortland County, only 24% of third graders are testing proficiently on New York State English Language Arts exams. This is especially important because third grade marks a turning point in early education: at that time, children typically are expected to stop learning to read and begin reading to learn other subjects. To keep on track towards this goal, it is imperative that children enter Kindergarten ready to begin learning how to read. Unfortunately, all children do not enter school at the same level of readiness.

In 2017, only 56% of Cortland County children were deemed “ready” for Kindergarten when they entered school. If a child is not participating in a structured learning environment prior to school and their parents do not possess the resources or knowledge to prepare them, they enter with a disadvantage that will follow them year after year. But all hope is not lost. The Cortland County Literacy Council is setting out to break down barriers and help families create a lifestyle of learning for the region’s children.

Renee Marleau, community projects coordinator of Cortland Area Communities that Care, has been spearheading the Literacy Council since October 2017.

“There is an outstanding need for literacy work here,” she said. “Three-quarters of our students are not performing at grade level.”

Struggling with low literacy skills during early childhood is only the first obstacle in an uphill battle. Dropping out of high school is often not a sudden event; it is preceded by a cycle of failing to catch up and prolonged disengagement.

The Literacy Council, a partnership between Communities that Care, school districts county-wide and nonprofit agencies, was established to break this cycle and institute positive interventions in the lives of children. As if matching puzzle pieces, the groups joined together to determine how the long-talked-about need for literacy engagement could turn into tangible programs.

The school year has just come to an end, but Marleau is busy building a community where learning has no end date. The Literacy Council has several initiatives designed to prevent learning loss this summer. For the second year in a row, school districts are making summer school classes available to any interested student, not just those who need remediation. Additionally, its Books to Grow On program will distribute books to children aged 0-4 at their regular pediatric check-ups.

Two-thousand students also left school this year with a summer guide booklet brimming with tips for parents to encourage learning and an abundant list of free activities occurring at parks, museums and schools. Getting these resources into the hands of parents, guardians, or even babysitters is the first step in ensuring children will have opportunities to learn and practice the skills they obtained during the school year.

“Low literacy because is not an isolated problem,” said Robyn Smith, program officer at the Central New York Community Foundation. “It dramatically disadvantages people from partaking in employment and economic opportunities. An investment in early literacy intervention sees its returns in a thriving community for future generations.”

Marleau hopes that other counties struggling with literacy problems can look to Cortland’s Literacy Council as a source of inspiration for engaging with hard-to-reach populations. Since conventional tactics like workshops are not convenient for people spread across Cortland County’s wide geography, they must institute creative solutions. This summer, the Literacy Council will encourage teachable moments through activity posters tactfully hung throughout the community.

Besides creativity, Marleau discovered this problem must also be met with patience. For lasting impact, initiatives cannot rely on a one-and-done mentality.

“Everything we do is a long-term solution,” said Marleau. “We have considered who is involved in a child’s life and found the simplest things they can do each and every day to impact the child’s learning right there in the moment.”

The Cortland County Literacy Council is making literacy engagement a permanent lifestyle for Central New York children. Its efforts are sure to impact our region for the better.

To support or get in involved with the Cortland County Literacy Council, visit: https://www.cortlandareactc.org/

The Central New York Community Foundation supports the Cortland County Literacy Council through grant funding, which recently made the mass production of print materials possible. Through administrative support, the Community Foundation helps to ensure the Literacy Council is meeting all initiative objectives. Additionally, this relationship has linked the Literacy Council to organizations in other communities serving similar needs.

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