A helping hand for a half century

MARSHALL – On Aug. 20, 1964, in Washington, D.C., President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law. The Act created Community Action Agencies and other programs to fight his War on Poverty.

May is Community Action Month, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of Community Action nationally.

Liz of Marshall, who didn’t want her last name used, has used all of the programs the local community action agency, Western Community Action, has to offer.

“It’s changed my life completely,” she said.

Years ago, she was depressed and ended up in the behavioral health unit at Avera Marshall. When she got out, she found herself with no place to live. She got temporary lodging through The Refuge: A Fresh Start and permanent housing through the Permanent Supportive Housing program at WCA.

Jeanine Antony, a self-sufficiency case manager, was Liz’s case worker for two years.

“She found me a place to live,” Liz said. “She never judged me. She just supported me.”

Liz now lives in an apartment that she loves.

“I have stability and structure,” she said.

Liz has recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science. She wants to continue her schooling to go into “counseling with a Christian background. I want to give back and help others.”

“I feel blessed every day,” she said. “I can’t even imagine what I would have done without the help.”

Johnson’s 1964 “War on Poverty” initiative has made headway over the past 50 years, but a new challenge, the recent recession of 2008 that the country is still trying to recover from, has made nationwide community action agencies more needed than ever, said a local Community Action official.

John Fitzgerald, executive director for Western Community Action since 2008, said the agency is celebrating the national milestone and will celebrate its own 50th anniversary of incorporation next year.

“We’re helping to celebrate the national organization turning 50,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ll attend the state conference in August in Duluth. A national officer, David Bradley, will come out and speak.”

Fitzgerald said people ask him why there is just as much poverty now as there was in 1964.

“Poverty was declining, but now with the recession, new folks have fallen into poverty,” he said.

Fitzgerald said a couple who were using the food shelf recently were almost in tears saying they never believed they would need that service.

“We are a safety net to help people get back on their feet, to give them tools to be self-sufficient,” he said. “The WCA put programs in place as a pathway out of poverty. We work with different organizations.”

Allan Bakke, the director of Big Buddies and also the development director, works with the community regularly to provide services for youth.

“A lot of businesses, organizations and individuals have made it their mission to make sure that people in Marshall and the five-county area are thriving,” Bakke said. “They’ve really stepped up to the plate.”

Bakke said WCA raises about $250,000 a year to fund programs.

“That’s an amazing amount of commitment,” he said.

Federal and state funding has become more and more scarce, he said.

“As the funding has been cut back, concerned people have stepped in,” he said. “They not only talk the talk, but they walk the walk.”