When Willy Soderholm joined Community
Action Partnership in Minot as executive director in June, he knew as much about the anti-poverty agency as most people. In other words, he had a lot to learn.
There's far more to the agency than most people realize, he said.
Jill Schramm/MDN •
Willy Soderholm, executive director for Community Action Partnership, reviews a report with program specialist coordinator Connie Bounting Oct. 23.
"People think of us as giving money out, but it's definitely much, much more than that," he said. "What really impresses me most about the agency is the number of programs that are available for clients."
The programs aren't just hand-outs, either.
"We don't want to be just an agency that's a Band-Aid. We want to be an agency that can take a client from one level and put them on a level where they're self sufficient," Soderholm said.
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Soderholm has acquainted himself with the intricacies of agency in the past five months as he has worked alongside a number of long-time employees. Spending time with the weatherization crew in the field gave him a new appreciation for that program.
"Those guys are technicians. They are experts in what they do. It's not just going out and putting some insulation in the walls," he said. "I am just really impressed with the quality of the staff we have here and the programs that we do."
Soderholm's previous experience included working as coordinator of a statewide education program, Pathfinder/North Dakota Parent Assistance and Support Schools. He also worked with summer programs at the Minot State University Center for Extended Learning and as disbursement coordinator at ING.
A native of northeastern Montana, Soderholm spent six years on Navy submarines. He earned a degree in physical education from MSU in 1988, later coaching sprints and hurdles for the MSU track team. He lived seven years in Seattle before returning to Minot in the mid-1990s.
As executive director for Community Action, Soderholm oversees a variety of programs designed to help lower income individuals and families. One of the higher profile projects is the distribution of about 75 Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets to clients.
Community Action staff said families often place basic needs at the top of their Christmas list. But the agency strives to provide for wants along with the needs.
The agency is looking for churches, organizations, classrooms or individuals to sponsor families by donating Christmas gifts. The program also is accepting new toys and monetary donations to buy toys and other needed gift items.
Community Action also supplies holiday food baskets with the help of public donations and groups like the Wild Turkey Federation, which provide the Christmas turkeys.
During the year, Community Action is involved in food programs that directly serve 700 senior citizens and assist hundreds more through support for 15 area food pantries.
Programs such as food pantries, rental and mortgage assistance or fuel and utility assistance put clients in better positions to participate in Community Action's self sufficiency programs.
"Nobody is going to look at long-term goals until basic needs are met," said Connie Bounting, program specialist coordinator.
Self-reliance programs at Community Action include workshops on money management, goal setting and confidence building. Community Action also has programs in HIV/AIDS prevention, housing and transportation. Its Diabetic Supply Program assists uninsured, low-income clients with medical purchases. Community Action has a summer food service program for children and a drug prevention program for youth.
The agency helps people buy or maintain homes through education, financial assistance and housing rehabilitation programs. It counsels low-income clients struggling with housing payment issues.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which operates from February through April, brought Community Action in contact last year with more than 300 taxpayers. Besides providing a free tax service, tax counselors can provide advice for using tax credits or refunds to establish a plan for self sufficiency.
Bounting said that some clients only need one-time help to get through a crisis. Other clients stay in contact as long as a year to gain the skills necessary to make it on their own.
Two clients who recently came for help in developing job resumes were among people who have presented small but critical needs. The only thing standing between one client and a job was money to buy a pair of steel-toed boots. Another just needed money to cover the fee for a licensing exam. Community Action made the small investments to launch their careers.
The policy is that if a need doesn't fit into an existing program, staff will find a new way to address it. Flexibility is Community Action's strength, said Janell Roy, substance abuse prevention and youth coordinator.
"It's fun to get to be creative and think of things that can help people where they are at right now," Roy said.
Soderholm also appreciates that flexibility.
"Things change. What's important today might not be that important tomorrow. We have the opportunity to shift gears or go in different directions as needed," he said. "I want to let my staff know that we are in this together, and we need to be open and we need to talk about what the needs are. We really need to make sure that the funding that we receive, the donations we receive, everything goes in the right direction."