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COAD: Pressing for Success

by Fred D. Baldwin

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COAD programs focus on community and leadership development, early education and child care, and services for seniors.

Talk about exceeding expectations. Early in 2002, two young staff members of agencies serving Columbiana County, Ohio, teamed up on a special action project. They hoped to raise money from local hospitals for a conference aimed at health care employers and training institutions in their county. Almost before they knew it, they had raised $100,000 for a three-county conference.

The Mahoning Valley Regional Healthcare Workforce Summit, held last October, attracted about 250 participants committed to addressing the recruitment, retention, and development of health care workers. It led to the creation of several task forces, whose collaboration has begun to pay off for both employers and job seekers in northern Ohio.

The two conference organizers, Jessica Borza and Tila Miller, had never met before enrolling at the Appalachian Leadership Academy (ALA), a professional development program sponsored by the Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development (COAD). Borza, then working with a collaborative effort among employment training organizations called the Columbiana County One-Stop, and Miller, then a charge nurse with a nonprofit health center, were among the 25 to 30 individuals per year who attend ALA sessions. Their highly successful action project began as a course requirement.

The mission of the ALA, now in its fourth year of operation, is to help middle managers and other promising professionals in local government, economic development, nonprofit, and community action organizations in Ohio's 29 Appalachian counties broaden their horizons and sharpen their personal skills.

"I couldn't even begin to tell you what I learned," says Miller, who is now clinical coordinator for her organization's clinics. "Marketing. Management skills. And how to get people to work together."

"It was an amazing program," Borza agrees. "I credit it directly for a lot of the success I've had professionally and for the success of our organization. The health care summit was an approach that was unprecedented and resulted in benefits to all our organizations. And I've since been asked to serve on three boards in our community."

After completing ALA training, both Borza and Miller earned promotions, in part because of the success of their project. As for the ALA as a whole, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Its early successes led to requests for its replication: last year COAD was asked to begin a similar program, the Community Action Leadership Academy (CALA). The ALA, which receives support from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), operates exclusively within Appalachian counties and is open to participants from any nonprofit service agency in those counties. The CALA, supported by non-ARC resources, operates statewide but is limited to staff at community action agencies. Otherwise, the two programs are almost identical.

ALA participants spend a day each month for a year in visits to agencies scattered throughout Appalachian Ohio, studying site-specific issues during each visit. This approach sharply differentiates the ALA from training programs based on classroom lectures or seminars. Miller and Borza, residents of Appalachian Ohio's northernmost county, sometimes traveled more than three hours to sites.

All participants, individually or with a partner, select a special project involving their own agency. Projects during the last year or two have included a residential fire inspection program, an employee wellness program, a community computer center, and a centralized kitchen facility to serve Head Start and seniors programs.

Programs like the ALA and the CALA are designed to cut across boxes on organization charts and boundary lines on maps. "We're trying to identify future leaders in nonprofits and local government," says Bryan Zabitski, COAD leadership programs assistant. "They're able to put what they learn into action right away, and that teaches them about themselves and how they work."

"One of the things that's important about the leadership academy," says COAD executive director Roger McCauley, "is that it brings together people from throughout the region in similar types of organizations and positions. You build a network of people who have a common understanding of leadership development and characteristics. The networking that occurs among the alumni benefits the region overall."

Gary Little, a graduate of the ALA class of 2000 and now president of the Information Technology Alliance of Appalachian Ohio, in Athens, agrees. "We know each other well and trust each other," he says of his former classmates. "And that's how a lot of things get done."

Helping organizations and individuals develop their own capabilities has been COAD's stock-in-trade for over 30 years. The organization was created in 1971, when a number of community action agency directors in southeastern Ohio recognized that they needed a means of expressing common concerns on behalf of the rural, low-income residents in the Appalachian counties their agencies served. For some years COAD functioned solely as an advocacy group. In time its members concluded that a highly qualified regional staff could provide some services more effectively and less expensively than their own local agencies. Today COAD's 17 member agencies represent all but one of Ohio's Appalachian counties, as well as two non-Appalachian counties.

"What we do," McCauley sums up, "is bring people the information they need to be successful."

That's done in a great many ways. COAD classifies its programs under four broad headings:

  • Leadership programs, meaning the ALA and the CALA;
  • Early care and education, including improving child care options for families;
  • Seniors programs, including the Foster Grandparent Program and Seniors Teaching and Reaching Students, through which senior volunteers mentor and tutor elementary school children; and
  • Community development, including housing and energy conservation.

Like Pieces in a Puzzle

"COAD is fascinating," says Melody Sands, COAD community development specialist, "because everything comes together like pieces in a puzzle."

For example, even the best-trained staffs on agency payrolls can do little without strong community-based leadership. That's where a community development program like Project Good START (the acronym stands for Small Town Assessment and Readiness Techniques) comes in. It helps communities with fewer than 5,000 residents launch a strategic planning process. The process includes opinion surveys, focus groups, and town meetings in which residents identify strengths, problems, and strategies for change.

"We could decide what they need," Sands says, "but it doesn't work that way. If you don't have leaders in a community, programs just stop. These little towns are often off the radar screen when countywide planning occurs, and they sometimes don't have much sense of 'we.' Good START helps them discover value and worth in the community and find ways of working together."

For example, in the small village of Corning (593 residents), Midge Palmer and her sister, Lilian Winnenberg, have done aggressive work on community development issues, leading to the creation of the economic development organization Southern Perry Incubation Center for Entrepreneurs (SPICE), which Palmer now directs. Winnenberg is program coordinator.

"Years ago," Palmer says, "this was a major mining community. The roads are winding and narrow. It's very scenic, but it's not conducive to major manufacturing. Five years from now, I'd hope that we would have 50 to 100 people employed in computer-related work."

SPICE and other local leadership scored an early success by attracting an Internet-based firm with headquarters in Columbus. That business pulled out after the dot-com shakeout. Undiscouraged, Palmer remains convinced that the area's best chance for future growth lies with data processing—specifically, a growing demand for outsourcing medical billing. Development of a medical records business is now under way, with operations scheduled to begin in September in a new enterprise-development incubator created by SPICE.

"You have to make a start somewhere," Palmer says, "and that's what [Good START] was. One success builds on another."

Good START may also re-inspire longtime leaders. While facilitating meetings in Adams County earlier this year, Sands persuaded Bob Walters, a longtime newspaperman, to revive a local paper, the Winchester Times. He'd published the paper before but closed it down as unprofitable. But last year he became deeply involved in Winchester's strategic planning process set in motion by Good START and wanted to support it.

After three issues, the Times, published monthly, is attracting enough advertisers to break even. Walters says it's too early to say if the paper will really take off, but for now he sees it as his contribution to local revitalization in a town of about 1,000 people.

"I probably wouldn't even have thought about reviving it if Melody hadn't come to town," Walters says. "Her moral support was important. What she was trying to instill in me was that the paper could very well be the catalyst to the whole thing."

Promoting Self-Sufficiency

COAD's housing programs provide another example of how the agency works. It sponsors a few efforts directly, such as an experiment with building a house with straw-bale walls. Begun under a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant and built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, the prototype house is near completion and may be ready for occupancy this summer by a low-income family who helped with its construction. A larger relevance of the project is that COAD's Athens headquarters trains weatherization crews. By monitoring both the house's characteristics during construction and early occupancy, COAD weatherization specialists hope to learn whether straw-bale construction can minimize building costs and energy use, while avoiding possible problems such as moisture build-up in walls.

During 2002 and early 2003 COAD conducted training courses for housing specialists from Ohio's 17 Appalachian community action agencies. A list of seven planned courses ultimately grew to 17, and a total of 27 individuals participated. Ten of these participants, all from ARC distressed counties, took every class. A partnership with Hocking College allowed participants to receive college credits for the courses.

"We did anything from real estate law to environmental assessments," says DeMara Wilson, COAD housing development and finance professional. "Our goal from day one was to educate housing developers in our community action agencies so that they are capable of building more housing, managing properties themselves, and becoming self-sustaining."

For example, one course was designed to satisfy state prerequisites for taking exams in advanced real estate and brokerage specialties. Agencies whose housing specialists pass these exams may be able themselves to manage multifamily units they've helped to finance, reducing costs. As a result, Wilson says, 12 people from nine agencies have received advanced licenses, and she's working on tools to help them decide when in-house management becomes more cost-effective than contracting out.

In short, COAD is sometimes a program operator, often a trainer, and always a catalyst. Midge Palmer's comment—"One success builds on another"—isn't a bad summary of its 32-year track record.

"COAD takes individuals who have all kinds of abilities," says Joy Padgett, director of the Governor's Office of Appalachia and Ohio Governor Bob Taft's alternate to ARC, "and it gives them the realization that they can do more and contribute to the benefit of the entire region. It can be a statewide model and a national model."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.