When Arnelle was a little girl, she never imagined sleeping outside a 7-11 in Florida with her infant son. But life had other plans.
Arnelle had grown up in a dysfunctional home. She found herself pregnant at a young age by a man who didn’t work and abandoned her and the baby. With no support system, she and her infant son struggled to survive on the streets of North Fort Myers, Florida.
Arnelle learned early in life that people let you down. So, it’s no surprise she was skeptical when she first learned about our Better Families program. “Why would a stranger want to help me and my son?”
But Arnelle quickly realized our program volunteers weren’t strangers—they were neighbors. Over time, she opened her heart to a support system she had always wanted. She met with a host family that had volunteered to care for her son while she took back control over her life. For the first time in a long time, Arnelle felt hope.
She bravely decided to place her son in the care of that family. With peace of mind that her son was off the street and had food to eat, Arnelle could focus on getting her life back on track. In under 60 days—and with the support of our mentors—Arnelle found a job, housing and childcare. She has long been living independently with her son and keeps in touch with the host family, church and other volunteers who helped her along the way. These supportive friendships will last a lifetime.
We tend to define “fighting poverty” as helping people and families meet basic needs of survival—food, water and shelter. But poverty is not just a lack of money—it’s a lack of social connections.
When temporary crises strike, like job loss or a medical emergency, most of us turn to family or friends for help. But many families already struggling with poverty have nobody to call. They suffer alone until problems become too much to bear, and families break apart. One in five millennials report having “no friends.” They have no support network to help them through tough issues like unemployment, rehab, illness or eviction. The damages of this isolation have only compounded during the pandemic.
In Ohio, a single mother was arrested for leaving her kids in a motel room while she worked. Teenagers are dropping out of school to support their families. In New Jersey, a young girl broke down and started crying in virtual class because she was hungry and couldn’t concentrate.
Millions of students have missed school since March 2020, and when Florida social worker Laura Tucker finally located a seventh grade boy—one of 7,000 kids missing from her district—she found him living in an encampment in the woods with his mother. These loving families, faced with impossible choices, are doing everything they can to stay together, but they are still falling short.
Foster care is not the answer for these families. They need the support of caring friends and neighbors.
Government does not have the resources or the bandwidth to provide bespoke solutions for families in immediate crisis. For too long, social welfare programs have created bad incentives, moved slowly and failed to address underlying problems. Family and work programs that are driven by local churches and volunteers provide another way.
Our model is a case in point. Better Together protects children, empowers parents and keeps families together across southwest Florida with programs that treat the whole person and whole family. Every day, we watch parents—many of whom struggled alone for years—become active agents in their own circumstances as they work to find a job, housing, childcare, treatment and more.
Since our founding, we have provided temporary shelter for more than 3,102 children across southwest Florida while empowering parents to overcome crisis and turn their lives around. Using our model, 98% of families are able to stay intact, requiring no further intervention from the state.
It’s rarely “just one thing” that pushes people into crisis. There are usually several causes. Our program gets to know the whole family to figure out what those underlying barriers to stability are, and how we can best help. After families are reunited, volunteers keep in touch and remain available for last-minute childcare, advice and more. Real connections and friendships form out of these experiences.
After discovering 80% of the parents we served had fallen into crisis as a direct result of job loss, we got preventive and launched Better Jobs, a program to train churches to host job fairs connecting people with work—regardless of their background—in an atmosphere of celebration and hope. We have since connected more than 34,000 people with job opportunities across 21 states nationwide.
These are not traditional job fairs. At each event, volunteers rally around job seekers as they overcome histories of addiction and criminal records, offering them encouragement and job coaching. Businesses offer free haircuts, interview clothes, hygiene items, legal services and more. Local employers are fully invested in our mission and the significance of the jobs they represent. They listen to people with open minds, and often give job interviews and offers on-the-spot. One in four people attending our events is hired on-the-spot. Sixty percent find work within six weeks of the event.
The dignity that comes with having a job can change a person’s life. I think of the father to Arnelle’s son, who abandoned his family. What if this man had a job? What if he had a community of people invested in his life, rooting for him to succeed? This is the power of an engaged community.
If you were to ask Arnelle the odds of finding a job and apartment in 60 days as she sat outside that 7-11 with her baby, she would have told you it was impossible, even with a little bit of cash in her pocket. But service organizations driven by local volunteers make the impossible happen every single day.
Megan Rose is the CEO of Better Together, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing child neglect and making families stronger with programs empowering parents to help themselves. www.bettertogetherus.org.