A Look Inside 2012’s GAWDA Gives Back Recipients

Partners In Housing and Peak Parent Center share hopes, missions and financials.

It goes without saying that GAWDA members reach deep into their pockets when it comes to helping those in need. Since 2000, almost $1.2 million dollars (1,174,483 to be exact) have been donated. GAWDA members have reached down deep and often to provide a hand out to so many organizations in need. You can read about those organizations and how the donations were used in the article “How GAWDA Gave Back: A look at how our generosity to local charities was put to use.”

It’s not hard to become hardened when asked again and again to reach down for another organization in need and to give half-heartedly, perhaps because you have to, or because everybody else is. Why support an organization in a city you are visiting for a couple of days, when there are a lot of local groups in need you already support at home?

So why do we do it? Why do we, year after year, search for a truly needy organization in the annual convention’s host city and raise tens of thousands of dollars (in 2011, it was hundreds of thousands)? Why do we continue to reach deep into our pockets and help those truly in need?

The same reason we give money to help earthquake victims in Haiti, tsunami victims in Japan, cancer survivors and AIDS patients in cities across the United States. Because we are good people who care about our fellow human beings. Because GAWDA members have huge hearts and really care about others. And you have to admit, because raising money is really fun!

GAWDA Media Managing Editor Carole Jesiolowski wanted to know what makes this year’s GAWDA Gives Back organizations tick. What do they think about a bunch of strangers showing up in their City of Colorado Springs and showering them with money (you’re kidding, right!). She wanted to know how big their budgets are, how much it really takes to run their programs, and how they planned to spend the GGB money…in other words, for every dollar donated, how much is actually spent on those in need versus overhead, salaries, etc. (Full disclosure:  Jesiolowski has a storied past running several non-profits, and she considers herself merciless and without fear when it comes to holding non-profits’ feet to the fire.) The executive directors of Partners In Housing and Peak Parent Center, 2012’s GAWDA Gives Back recipients, were eager to share the work and mission of their organizations.

Partners In Housing Is All About Results


Partners In Housing - Partners Crossing

Partners Crossing, one of the three-bedroom tri-plexes built by Partners In Housing in 2006

That old saying, If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime, best sums up Partners In Housing, a Colorado Springs organization founded 21 years ago to help homeless families. In FY 2011-2012, Partners In Housing (PIH) assisted 365 homeless people, including 216 children and 149 adult “Partners,” a term used by PIH to describe clients in need of help.

Let’s break down the numbers. In 2012, PIH provided…

  • 60,055 nights of housing
  • 1,509 hours of case management
  • 569 sessions of individual budget counseling
  • 8,996 hours of life skills training.

To put this into perspective, the previous year, PIH provided services to 348 people. While the economy may be slowly recovering, the cost of housing is increasing, and jobs continue to be hard to come by, even minimum wage and fast food jobs, which don’t provide enough hours to pay the rent. In addition, people who lost their homes due to foreclosure are now renting, so the rental market is maxed out. In Colorado Springs, there are no more affordable rentals available for individuals not earning a living wage, and as a result, a lot of families just aren’t making it.

Partners In Housing strongly believes that homeless families need more than shelter. They need skills to get better paying jobs so they can pay their own rent and be self-sufficient, contributing members of the local community. They need skills to learn how to care for and nurture a family. They need results.

Partners In Housing - Budget Counseling

Services like budget counseling help Partners In Housing's clients "learn how to fish."

PIH Executive Director Mary Stegner explains that results come from hard work and a commitment to change. “Being a Partner in this process takes hard work on both sides. It requires that the homeless individual work diligently in order to make changes and grow. It is not a handout.” PIH Partners must sign a contract that requires they hold a job, they learn new skills, and they work toward independent housing. And they have one year to accomplish these goals.

This is where learning how to fish comes in.

Changing Their Future
While the impact of the economy has brought many clients to PIH, others are victims of domestic violence who have fled a situation that is unsafe for them and their children. Sometimes they come with just a backpack. Abusers can be very controlling, and often the person may never have written a check or learned to do normal household activities. “The learning potential is huge,” Stegner says. “It’s a big step to go from living in a car to moving in and having a lease on stable housing within one year.”

The program is designed to move households from homelessness to self-sufficiency in one year, with a possible one year extension if program goals are being met. In order to help households make this transition, PIH provides four key services: transitional housing, case management, life skills training and budget counseling.

Partners in Housing - Mother with sleeping child

Children are a top priority for Stegner and Partners in Housing

PIH staff is focused on the future, and how to get there. From the first day the Partner arrives, they begin to talk about the next step in housing. “If they need to work on credit repair, we work on that. If they need to work on a savings plan, we work on that,” Stegner says.

Training includes everything from how to get and keep a job to how run and maintain a household. This includes nutrition and cooking classes, housekeeping, résumé writing, job interviewing, budgeting and financial literacy. Partners learn how to develop healthy relationships, how to make sure kids are getting enough exercise, and even what to do when your car breaks down. Job skills are paramount, and PIH has developed relationships with several local resources for job training. At a recent meeting in Colorado Springs, Stegner heard about the need for skilled welders. “I had no idea there is such a shortage,” she says, and made a note to connect with local training programs.

PIH pays a lot of attention to children who, if homeless and living in car, probably have poor school attendance and poor grades. Adult outcomes are tracked, as are children’s. Says Stegner, “It’s a great motivator for children to watch their moms do homework and to be sleeping in a bed every night. We’ve had great outcomes for the kids in our program. That’s very important to me. They are the next generation of people who hopefully will not follow this pattern of poverty and homelessness. These kids are changing their future.”

Partners in Housing - In the Classroom

Training includes nutrition and cooking classes, housekeeping, résumé writing, job interviewing, budgeting and financial literacy.

Dollars and Sense
On Partners In Housing’s website at www.partnersinhousing.org, full disclosure and transparency are the norm. PIH’s operating budget is $1.4 million. Only 20% of income comes from donations. The rest comes from foundation grants, government funding and rental income. For every dollar donated, 85 cents goes directly to program activity, rather than overhead.

Stegner is quick to point out that Partners In Housing is not a housing program.  “The emphasis of our program is helping people learn the skills they need to be economically independent. To participate in the program, all adults must be willing and able to work and, most important, be motivated to achieve self-sufficiency.”

Stegner realizes that donors want to know that their money is making a difference. And PIH tells them exactly how it is spent and what it is accomplishing. For example, when the 2011-12 fiscal year ended, the details were posted on PIH’s home page. Of the 149 Partners receiving services, 63 graduated from the program. Of these…

  • 65% moved to stable, long-term housing
  • 54% increased their income
  • 52% improved their employment situation
  • 43% increased their education
  • 67% improved their overall self-sufficiency.

Giving Back
As is the case for many non-profits nowadays, several PIH funding sources have dried up, and money is tight. The Board of Directors is working toward a more focused donor plan to move donors from small donations on an annual basis to larger donations on a more regular basis. The Gawda Gives Back contribution will provide a little bit of time for PIH to get the plan in place, helping them make it through this year without having to be concerned about cutting services. Says Stegner, “We are so grateful that Partners in Housing was chosen as a GAWDA Gives Back recipient. Obviously, the money will help us very much, but it’s not just about the money. GAWDA was able to look at our program and say, ‘These people are doing good work and helping people in a way that we think is significant.’  That feels really good to us.”

PEAK Parent Center Epitomizes “Peak Performance”

PEAK Parent Center - Board Member and her daughter

PEAK Board Member Delois Meyer with her daughter, who has Down syndrome

Some parents will tell you that upon hearing the diagnosis that their child has a disability, life stopped for a moment, and then changed. Many parents, even in the not-too-distant past, were told that their children should be “put away,” “institutionalized,” “will be a burden to the family.”  Upon hearing those words, Barbara Buswell and her husband, Mark, made it clear that no matter how hard the challenges, they would figure out a way through. And no matter how high the summit, they would do all they could to reach it together as a family. Besides, they were both teachers. Learning was second nature to them. They knew how to find out things.

Wilson Buswell, Barbara and Mark’s second child, was born 30 years ago. Deprived of oxygen at birth, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Immediately, Wilson’s parents set about trying to learn all they could to support their child. They looked everywhere for information. Books in public libraries were out of date. Support groups were non-existent. Even doctors’ information varied from doctor to doctor. Barbara Buswell says, “We rarely saw ourselves as incompetent, but it was almost impossible to figure out how to navigate the systems, whether they be educational, medical, social, financial. We wanted to find out how to help our son and we were coming up empty.”

While they found few answers, they did find other families—lots of them—asking similar questions. When they found information, they shared it. The Buswells realized that the information they were learning could help other families, so they started a parent support group in Colorado Springs for any family who had a child with a disability. They met more people, they asked more questions, they shared more information, and eventually they learned about a federal grant that would provide money to help their fledgling group. It took two tries before the application was approved, but the startup money would be used to help families get needed information.

PEAK Parent Center - Graduation

PEAK ally Kevin stands with his two best friends holding his high school diploma.

Since its founding in 1986, PEAK Parent Center (PEAK) has become a beacon of hope for families of children with disabilities. Discovering that a child has a disability often feels overwhelming and isolating for parents. PEAK empowers families, educating them about specific disabilities, available resources, laws that protect their children’s rights, and tools they need to become lifelong advocates for their children and themselves.

Barbara Buswell, PEAK’s executive director, says that the organization’s mission is to provide training, information and technical assistance to equip families of children birth through age 26, including all disability conditions, with strategies to advocate successfully for their children.

PEAK Parent Center has a staff of 11. Small size notwithstanding, this group’s outreach is large. Designated as a Parent Training and Information Center, PEAK serves the entire state of Colorado. The number of parent contacts last year numbered 6,632. The organization’s operating budget in FY2010-11, which ended on September 30, 2011, was $939,829. This year, it is $900,000. Sixty-one percent of total revenue comes from federal funding. According to Buswell, 91 cents of every dollar is used for program activity.

Many of PEAK’s services are provided at no cost to parents and families. The Board of Directors is currently working on a development plan to have a more stable, predictable history of raising money. “In other words,” says Buswell, “we are building a culture of development.”

PEAK Parent Center

A PEAK board member's husband with their son, who has Down syndrome

PEAK helps parents and educators to see new possibilities for children, expands their knowledge of special education issues, and offers new strategies for success. Services include:

  • A toll-free hotline with trained parent advisors who provide information, support, and referrals
  • An online calendar of events hosted by parent support groups across Colorado
  • Workshops statewide on successfully educating children with disabilities
  • An annual conference on inclusive education attended by hundreds of parents and educators
  • A monthly newsletter that contains the latest information and updates for families
  • Books and videos on how to successfully educate children with disabilities in general education classrooms
  • A family library to help parents increase their knowledge and skills in advocating for their children’s education
  • A leadership-training program for parents of young children.

PEAK recently was selected to help parent centers in nine other states (Arizona, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming) become strong and vital to the families served. Buswell describes them as grassroots groups, led by people with great passion, heart and skill. “But many have no professional training. To be a high-performing organization, training is needed.” PEAK is providing that training, sharing the information learned in Colorado.


PEAK Parent Center - PATH Planning Services

A woman (center) receives planning services from PEAK Parent Center.

Dollars and Sense
PEAK’s website at www.peakparent.org contains a large amount of information for parents. Last year, over 86,000 visits were made to the website. Recognizing that technology can extend PEAK’s outreach even further, Buswell details plans for a new website, which will be made possible with the GAWDA Gives Back donation. The website will be upgraded to something more current and versatile. Buswell would like to add a blog and develop a social media structure for families to network and share information. Since there’s little money available for travel across the state, training webinars will be added so more parents can be reached. Also being added are e-learning courses to develop parent leaders. Buswell explains, “Promising young leaders throughout the state will be able to take an online course so they can get information skills and contribute back to their local communities.”  She adds, “We want to orchestrate our website smoothly and develop the capacity to use technology strategically to save resources.” With no funding available for this, the GAWDA Gives Back donation will go far, multiplying services and the outreach to families across a wide region.

Giving Back
PEAK tries to figure out how to make things work. If you have a physical disability, how do you go to a soccer game?  If you have a mental disability, how do you do your job?  If you have an intellectual disability, how do you stay in school and learn?  How can your family and friends and people around you learn how to give you assistance where needed? How do you share with those around you that you’re not much different than them? How do you insist on the rights to education, housing, employment, medical care that every citizen desires and deserves?  The answers to these questions are clearer today for many families because of PEAK Parent Center.

“In the majority culture,” says Barbara Buswell, “we sometimes make assumptions that disability is so tough that it’s going to make people crumble. We help families with strategies so they can be resilient and strong, maybe even stronger.” 

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