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A Homespun Safety Net

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 1997; Page A01

Sylvia Ornelas at Work/TWP
A neighborhood church program helped Sylvia Ornelas get off welfare. (By Robert Cooley for The Washington Post)
HOLLAND, Mich.—Her marriage a wreck, Sylvia Ornelas gathered up her four children and headed for this drowsy little town in western Michigan six months ago, leaving her husband and Hammond, Ind., behind.

Dead broke, she went to the welfare office here to get on the dole, sharing with the caseworker her sadly familiar tale. But what happened next was hardly formulaic: Practically the entire community pitched in to help Ornelas back off welfare and into a job.

Neighbors took her children shopping for school clothes. Executives for a local manufacturer helped her find work. Bob and Mary Ann Baker bought her a used car to get around. Ginny Weerstra helped her find an apartment. Parishioners at Hardewyk Reformed Christian Church took up a collection to get her phone installed, and when her husband reentered her life, Pastor Andrew Gorter provided the couple with marital counseling.

"I don't want to receive nothing with everyone backing me up," said Ornelas, who is working full time and has not collected a dime in public assistance in nearly three months. "If I have a problem, they're there for me. It's like I've got a shoulder – a lot of shoulders – to lean on now."

With this potluck of an anti-poverty program – and plenty of jobs to go around – Holland and surrounding Ottawa County has come closer than any community in America to the implicit goal of the national welfare overhaul put in place last year: Every able-bodied welfare recipient here has found a job.

This once insular Dutch community on the shores of Lake Michigan accomplished that by opening up to its poorest families, then closing ranks around them.

The change was inspired by Michigan's ambitious experiment, Project Zero, which requires virtually everyone on the dole in six pilot counties to work. Social service officials in Ottawa County decided to use the county's nearly 250 churches and synagogues as a conduit to tap into the greater community – its builders, doctors, mechanics, attorneys, teachers and retirees – and encourage them to take on some of the responsibility of caring for their indigent neighbors.

And this remote, conservative enclave of 210,000 residents – one of the most overwhelmingly Republican counties in the nation – has responded, offering up cars, jobs, day care and other services that have helped reduce the county's public relief rolls from 413 to 149. Everyone still on the welfare rolls reported earnings last month but qualified for some benefits because the pay was so meager.

No one disputes that the central reason for the county's success is the availability of jobs. The county's unemployment rate of 2.7 percent is about half the national rate.

And, it is anything but clear whether other jurisdictions could reproduce Ottawa County's efforts. For one, the collaboration with religious groups is for some a dangerous flirtation with the constitutionally rigid separation of church and state.

Moreover, Ottawa County is no Detroit or Baltimore. The population of poor families is smaller, more stable, and faces fewer barriers to employment than counterparts in America's big cities.

"What they have done is impressive, but no one should conclude that their feats can simply be replicated everywhere," said David Butler of the Manpower Development Research Corp., a New York-based nonprofit agency that evaluates state and local welfare programs nationwide.

Still, by banding together, Ottawa County has addressed one of the hidden barriers facing the poor: Without family or friends to baby-sit in a pinch, tip them off to an unadvertised job opening or vouch for them when they apply for a job, the country's most needy are often forced to go it alone.

"You're not going to have lasting welfare reform unless you integrate the poor into the economy," said Anna Kondratas, co-director of the New Federalism project for the Urban Institute. "And most of us are integrated into the economy through our social networks."

Lowering that barrier was precisely what this town set out to do for Gloria Garcia.

Twenty-seven and the single mother of five young children, Garcia was homeless and jobless when her caseworker asked her in March if she would like to be coupled with mentors from one of the area churches. She agreed, and parishioners at Hardewyk Christian Reformed Church took up Garcia's cause.

Hampered by day care problems, Garcia had lost her job after failing to show up for work several times.

But Ginny Weerstra, a parishioner at Hardewyk, put in a call to the temporary employment service where Garcia had worked and asked them to give her a second chance.

"I just told her that Gloria had people behind her now when she runs into trouble," Weerstra said of her conversation.

The employer agreed, and Garcia has been working full time since September.

"She's doing wonderful," said Jennifer Reeves, a manager at the company that hired her back. "When Ginny called and said that the church was mentoring her, that gave us a lot more confidence in Gloria."

The church lent Garcia $2,000 to pay off some bad debts and buy a used car. One parishioner, an auto mechanic, accompanied Garcia when she went car shopping, the first time in her life she had done so. She settled on a 1987 Ford Escort.

Weerstra helped Garcia find an affordable home. Other parishioners baby-sit her kids if she needs a breather and have helped her make a budget. Not only has Garcia repaid the church loan in full, she now has more than $600 in a savings account.

"We're really a very closed community that's just now opening up and learning that you can't just sit on your front porch anymore and watch as the world goes by," Weerstra said. "You've got to get involved."

Garcia, a blunt but pleasant woman, said that merely knowing someone else cares has made all the difference in her chaotic world. "It just seems like whenever I've had a problem, they're there for me," Garcia said.

It is not just the churches that have stepped up to help. Indeed, nearly everyone in the county is working harder to contribute to the community-wide effort to help the poor.

County officials have doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to expand subsidized day care for working and job-seeking mothers. The county hired a firm to provide around-the-clock shuttle buses to take welfare recipients to work, and officials hired Kan Du Industries, a local picture-frame manufacturer, to provide the unemployed with help in preparing resumes and searching for work. "It's a lot more work intensive right now than it ever was before," said Loren Snippe, director of the county's social services department.

And, paradoxically, the 13 county caseworkers who work with families receiving cash benefits have never worked so hard. They're now required to visit families in their home and solve a range of problems, from broken cars to broken arms to figuring out a way to get a recipient into the work force.

The pressure reached a crescendo last month when it became clear that the county was just a few people away from moving every welfare recipient into jobs.

The last four or five cases were particularly intransigent, said caseworker Deanna Olney, so she and other workers were instructed to gather them up for a meeting at Kan Du one day.

With those few hours of effort, every welfare recipient in the county found some kind of work and one week later, state and county officials were able to report that Ottawa County was the first jurisdiction in the nation to find jobs for its entire welfare population.

Now, the children of women such as Ornelas are seeing their mothers get up and go to work, some for the first time.

"I know I am a lot better off now than I was before," said Ornelas, who earns $7 an hour at her job in a local factory. "My husband is working, we're going to counseling, and the Bakers will even baby-sit the kids it we need a breather. It's looking good for me."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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