Community Resource Center
It’s easy to take a big, sweeping look at our valley and overlook the intimate patchwork of people who work and live in this rugged landscape, facing challenges that are sometimes unique to life at 6,000 feet.
The newly established Community Resource Center of Teton Valley (CRC) cut the ribbon for their new office along Main Street in Driggs in late February 2016. The young nonprofit is working to connect many who are walking the very fine—and often invisible—line of poverty to services and support.
“We have a lot of kids who get free [or] reduced lunch,” says CRC Executive Director Megan O’Brien. “We have a lot of people who drive an hour to get to work, [or] who are unemployed. The weather is hard, housing is hard to come by. But I don’t think our actual poverty level feels any different than the national average, so that can make it seem like everyone in the valley is okay.
“Many people have a poor awareness of poverty,” she adds, and “some believe that if you can’t afford to live here, you should just move on.”
According to the 2015 Poverty Report produced by the U.S. Census Bureau, the national average poverty rate is 13.5 percent. Idaho comes in at 15.5 percent; Teton County, 18.3 percent.
Ann Loyola, director of marketing and public relations for Teton Valley Health Care, is a founding CRC board member. She has worked alongside hundreds of Teton Valley community members, from church group members to wilderness guides, to pave the way for this organization of compassion that seeks to understand the realities of poverty and the deep challenges facing those who live in it.
“We knew that many needs were not being met in Teton Valley,” says Loyola of the days before CRC put boots on the ground. It was after a 2012 needs assessment survey conducted by the Community Foundation of Teton Valley (CFTV) that Loyola started attending meetings called Filling the Gaps, which was a first step in assessing the support resources available here. Teton Valley Hospital committed $25,000 in seed money, while the CFTV granted another $10,000, to establish the CRC, open an office, and bring on O’Brien as their first staff person.
Loyola says the CRC board uses the program “Bridges Out of Poverty,” a proven road map for communities and organizations wishing to serve people in poverty.
“The Bridges Out of Poverty model shows us that resources are more than just financial, and that money doesn’t just solve everything,” O’Brien says. “I hope to impart the belief that people really want more control in their lives and they don’t want to live in poverty. These are not all sob stories, but stories of strength and about people looking to create a different life for themselves, even if it takes a long time.”
O’Brien says the challenges facing those needing government services and assistance are often much more complex than what first meets the eye. Imagine a traffic ticket throwing you into a financial tailspin, where you need to sacrifice food or shelter to pay the fine.
This was the case for a client who, because of a ticket for a traffic violation, was unable to pay a doctor bill for their child. And it wasn’t just the medical bill, it was losing hours at work because the child was sick and needed to stay home. On top of those, there was the rent coming due, and the court dates to fight custody from an abusive partner. Thanks to the CRC, the ticket was paid, and the organization continued to work with this parent to navigate the complex maze of the court systems and child custody rights.
“One of the things about living in poverty is that it’s really challenging to think in terms of the future,” O’Brien says. “You find yourself just trying to get through the day, wondering, ‘What will I have for dinner or breakfast, where will I sleep tonight?’ It becomes too hard to think abstractly about life.”
Another CRC client drives over Teton Pass to Jackson Hole to work eighty hours a week at $5.50 an hour. CRC is helping this individual reimagine life in a different job closer to home in Teton Valley. But it will take time, O’Brien says, because that $440 a week is feeding and sheltering a family.
O’Brien has about sixty clients she is working with at various levels of need, including people with disabilities trying to work through the court systems and individuals utilizing the newly implemented food rescue program. The latter, organized by a group of volunteers led by O’Brien, works with local businesses to “rescue” food that doesn’t sell, like day-old bread and fruits and vegetables a bit beyond their peak ripeness.
Additionally, CRC is working with the Hispanic Resource Center to provide training to bilingual clients. Through a court interpreter program, clients are trained and qualified for jobs that can start at $40 an hour.
“Imagine going from $7.25 an hour to $40 an hour,” O’Brien says.
Many clients get frustrated with the amount of paperwork involved, and with trying to comprehend what is available to them. For example, seniors and those with disabilities often feel overwhelmed by the steps they need to take to access services like medical disability support.
“It’s like herding cats, and I’ve gotten really good at Google research,” O’Brien says, laughing. “It’s easy to start the process for clients, but it can be challenging to keep the momentum going. We are always checking in with people, asking them to come in and talk about their obstacles. And we stay flexible to stay in touch with people.”