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Northwest Project gives way to RISE initiative

Organizers cite poverty reductions and now turn to upstart project for economic self-sufficiency

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The Northwest Project, a five-year initiative designed to reduce poverty in Zone 1, has concluded, and nonprofit officials now are expanding an economic self-sufficiency program that emerged.

The RISE program, which stands for reaching independence through support and education, is being launched in earnest as a yearlong effort to move participants to financial stability, according to organizers. RISE serves as a revenue stream for the Drew Lewis Foundation Inc., a key partner in the Northwest Project.

Amy Blansit, CEO of the Drew Lewis Foundation and project director for RISE, said the nonprofit plans to sell the resource as a fee-based system to organizations in the state, and eventually, nationwide. RISE, built through the Northwest Project, is funded for the next year with support from Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc. and other partners. 

“It really comes down to people. The reason our program has been successful is that we see the person as they are, where they are,” Blansit said. “We give them the skills where they feel empowered and that increases the idea of hope and possibilities. I don’t know that I would have guessed that hope would be more important than any other thing that we introduced into the program.”

For funding, the Northwest Project received $1.3 million in private money through CFO, the Stanley and Elaine Ball Foundation and The Musgrave Foundation. CFO is committing $50,000 for RISE, said Bridget Dierks, vice president of programs.

“We have initially funded this for five years, now six years,” she said. “We’re confident that they’re moving in the direction of being sustained with other funding resources.”

Aside from CFO’s financial contribution this year, Blansit said the program is in the second of a three-year commitment from an anonymous donor, who is giving $85,000 annually.

“The Drew Lewis Foundation has been really great stewards of the grant dollars,” Dierks said, noting the nonprofit still has around $200,000 of the $1.3 million available to use for the next year of RISE.

Reporting progress
Officials recently released the final annual report of the Northwest Project. Report highlights include an increase in average monthly income of $568 for participating households. Those same households increased their average credit scores by 48 points. For members who remained active in programming for 36 months, their average monthly income went up by $798.

Blansit said the first four months of both the Northwest Project and RISE program cover core material – a lot of budgeting, self-empowerment and education.

“The rest of the year is really helping individuals after they develop vision and goals of where they want to be to actually get there,” she said.

Participants continue to work with case managers and volunteers for the remainder of the year, although Blansit said they’re encouraged to remain engaged for three years.

“We definitely see the best results in individuals who have been in the program for more than two years and our data was even more outstanding for those who committed and stayed in for three years,” she said.

“We really like to see at least monthly engagement so that we can do a check in on their budget. That can be attending at least a class every month.”

Springfield’s poverty rate is dropping, officials say, but still has a way to go to reach state and national levels. It declined this year to a five-year low of 22.9%, according to Prosper Springfield, an initiative of Community Partnership of the Ozarks Inc. However, the rate is still well above the state’s level of 12.9% and the nation’s 10.5%, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

As with the Northwest Project, RISE is housed at The Fairbanks, 1126 N. Broadway Ave. Blansit and her husband, Drew Lewis, purchased the property in 2013. She started the Drew Lewis Foundation following his death from cancer.

The Northwest Project has worked with 123 households, impacting the lives of 464 individuals over the past five years, Blansit said.

“The goal we wanted to be able to reach was 500 lives,” she said. “But with COVID, obviously, our efforts were decreased.”

However, while programming and one-on-one time was reduced amid the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t eliminated as staff members were able to virtually interact with participants.

“We had already started teaching our families how to use Zoom so that if they weren’t able to make it to class in person, they were able to hop in and still be engaged with the group,” Blansit said of efforts in early 2020.

The nonprofit also received roughly $95,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding.

“We were able to use that to help our families with rent, utilities, child care, to make sure they had the stability they needed in order to keep jobs,” she said.

Expanding reach
Since its development amid the five years of the Northwest Project, RISE has been expanded to the cities of Aurora and Salem, with new groups being formed in Eldon, El Dorado Springs, Hermann, Monett, Neosho and Ozark. Only Missouri is being targeted at this time, but Blansit said reaching beyond the state is a long-term goal.

“We’ve created an entire education system in order to, in essence, train the trainer, so that a new community coming in goes through 10-12 hours of training with us in order to learn best practices,” Blansit said. “Then we help them establish it in their community.”

The cost of the fee-based system is still to be determined.

“How much we’ll need to sustain this annually is going to depend on how much we grow and how many communities we’re adding,” she said. “Honestly, we’re learning as we go.” 

While Aurora and Salem each had less than 20 people go through the initial cohorts, Blansit said the other communities are yet to start the program.

“That’s up to each of them when they start. They’ve all been through training, except for Ozark,” she said. “They’re working through recruiting, which is the hardest part.”

Blansit said the Northwest Project has been a significant part of her life the past five years, and she’s hopeful the impact will grow as RISE spreads in the Ozarks and beyond.

“We’ve really worked to improve what we’ve done every year and every class we teach,” she said.

“We’re always tweaking it and getting feedback from our families on how to make it better.”

Dierks said RISE will continue the Northwest Project’s goal of moving families out of poverty.

“We feel like RISE is very much on the cusp of something great because they can move to a lot of rural communities and do this good work,” she said.

“We’re very optimistic about the move from Springfield into our rural Ozarks communities.”


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