Families in crisis turn to LEAVEN for assistance

Spring is a busy time at the Limited Emergency Assistance Valley Ecumenical Network (LEAVEN). The winter moratorium in Wisconsin ended on April 15, so consumers who have outstanding utility bills and haven’t made arrangements for payment can have their utility service disconnected.

Kiara West, volunteer and community development coordinator at LEAVEN, said people from all walks of life seek help at the agency.

But families can turn to LEAVEN for assistance. In the case of outstanding utility bills, LEAVEN can help people prevent disconnections or get reconnected

LEAVEN, which is marking its 30th anniversary this year, provides emergency financial assistance, referrals and case management to address basic needs. In addition to help with utility costs, the agency also provides assistance and referrals for other basic needs like housing, food, clothing, transportation and diapers.

There may be many reasons why families go off track, according to Kiara West, who joined the agency in September 2016 as its volunteer and community development coordinator. It could be an unexpected expense, a job loss, divorce or health issue that makes it difficult to pay for basic needs. The agency helps residents of Outagamie, Calumet and northeastern Winnebago counties.

There are no income guidelines. People seeking help come from all walks of life. Most have housing-related issues. Many people walking through their door are employed, although often underemployed.

“While many of the people who use our services are low income,” West said, “we’re here to help people who have a legitimate need and nowhere else to turn for help.”

In addition, the agency partners with several other resources in the community to provide referrals and advocacy. Helping clients help themselves is a big part of what LEAVEN does.

“We’re not just putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” West said. “We’re trying to get to the root of the problem and change the cycle.”

Among the partnerships available on site at LEAVEN are Homeless Connections, FISC, Feeding America, Kimberly-Clark Legal Team, Energy  Services, FVTC and Partnership Community Health Center.

Helping clients transition from a crisis situation to self-sufficiency are more than 200 volunteers, including six members of the RSVP 55+ Program, who have contributed 615 hours to the agency over the last 12 months. Most of the volunteers help in the Menasha office. With only five paid staff at the agency, West says volunteers are key to the agency’s success.

“Our volunteers are the only reason we can do what we do,” she said. “Without our volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to serve our clients.”

Among the volunteers is RSVP member, Jeff Zdrale, who also serves as an interviewer at St. Joseph Food Program. At LEAVEN, he usually meets with three or four clients during his shift. He interviews applicants, assesses their situation and collaborates with a case worker. Together, they create a plan to connect the applicant to the correct resources, either at LEAVEN or at key agencies in the community.

He said that his role is to link people to resources and encourage them to take the next step to solving their problems. For instance, if an applicant is behind in their utility bill, they would need to contact the utility.

When asked why he volunteers at LEAVEN, he said his role matches his skills and interests. “I’m good at establishing a comfort level with people coming in,” he said. “I like to work with people who I feel are on the margin, or the disenfranchised.”

In addition to interviewers, there are other roles available for volunteers, including caseworkers, receptionists and working in the records area.

West said that volunteer training consists of shadowing more experienced volunteers for three to five shifts. Toward the end of the training, when new volunteers feel comfortable and more confident, they will take the lead at their role and receive feedback. West said there always is a group of more experienced volunteers on site and paid staff to answer questions.

“Our volunteers feel humbled to be part of LEAVEN,” West said. “You live in the Fox Valley and your eyes are open to the fact that there are so many people trying to make ends meet and maybe just fall in that rough spot where they feel trapped and we’re able to help them through that. When clients leave LEAVEN, they will feel like they have choices.”