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Local History

Region II Community Action Agency opened its doors in 1965, two years after Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech at the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. It was during a volatile era of social change marked by Civil Rights Marches; Freedom Riders; the Watts Riot and Vietnam.

Region II CAA began as a two county Jackson-Hillsdale Commission on Economic Opportunity operating out of a old house at 290 West Michigan in Jackson while Lenawee County opened Community Action, Incorporated in Adrian at 848 Hoch Ave. We merged in 1974 incorporating as Region II Community Action Agency at that time.

Mirroring what was happening at the National and State Levels, Region II CAA became a local testing ground for antipoverty initiatives. Some were so successful they lasted for many years, grew and became part of the fabric of the community. It is surprising to realize how instrumental we were to the establishment of programs we take for granted today. Not everything led to ”institutional change”, of course. Some programs were short-term creative efforts that met a temporary need and ended. Those that made it are a who’s who of social programs beginning, of course with Head Start.

In July 1965, Community Action introduced Project Head Start as a summer school in Jackson and Hillsdale counties. A more permanent four-month program was established for 375 preschoolers in Jackson/Hillsdale Counties in 1967 for a total program budget of $178,000. The first Head Start van was purchased in 1971.
Meanwhile, the Lenawee Community Action opened a free Primary Health Care Clinic in Adrian. In 1968, labor union members pitched in with materials and labor to build a 1,200 square foot addition to the Agency’s Adrian office. There was no charge, they just wanted to help. In the early 1970’s volunteer attorneys provided free legal counsel in Adrian, which precipitated the first Legal Aid Office. The Lenawee Office still provides office space to Legal Aid, which is now its own Corporation.

In the early 1970’s Jackson/Hillsdale provided drug and alcohol counseling, and in 1971, joined with the Jackson NAACP to pilot a “Self Help Catering” project that later became the Summer Lunch Program. We built sweat equity homes and piloted Family Planning Clinics (now available through Health Departments everywhere), which offered counseling, birth control and physical exams for low-income families. We helped create Food Co-ops.

On May 25, 1972, CAA sponsored Jackson County’s first Sickle Cell Anemia testing Clinic in collaboration with the Human Relations Coordinating Committee. The clinic was held at the Old Helmer School. Five hundred seven (507) tests were given and analyzed by Head Start nurses, 10% were positive. We developed community garden projects in Adrian and Hillsdale.

W.I.C. was a new idea in 1974 and it sounded like a good one to us, so Community Action agreed to sponsor the program for Lenawee County. Today we provide nutrition and health services to over 1,500 women and infants per month. That same year we assisted with a tornado clean up in Hillsdale County contributing $25,000 to the effort.
Community Action was instrumental in developing Senior Services, the Commission on Aging, and Senior Centers. We piloted the Senior Nutrition Program with Head Start cooks as an experiment to prevent premature placement of seniors in nursing homes in 1975. The first permanent Senior Nutrition Program was located in the Camden Frontier School and served 25 seniors. The program quickly gained in popularity spreading out to four makeshift dining centers in the townships of Reading, Hillsdale, Litchfield and Camden. In 1976, a nutrition site opened in Norvell, which paved the way for the eventual opening of eleven more sites in Jackson County. In 1980, two kitchens were consolidated into one at Crouch Kitchen. Home delivered meals were added, and by 1990 we were serving meals to more than 2,000 senior citizens in Jackson and Hillsdale. In October 1994, the Jackson County Department of Aging brought this Program under its wing as a permanent part of county government. In October 1995, the Hillsdale Senior Center took over the operations in that county.

We’ve organized neighborhoods to get central sewers, improve septic systems, pave roads, test for groundwater pollution and annex townships; built a recycle Center in Hillsdale & donated it to the city. Migrant Councils were organized in Lenawee to protect workers from unhealthy working conditions; we sponsored Hispanic Art and Culture Appreciation programs and welcomed Caesar Chavez to town. We’ve helped migrants gain work status & receive health care for 30 years.
In response to a devastating infant mortality rate, Region II CAA opened the doors to the Center for Healthy Beginnings in 1991. The Center was an experiment in community collaboration and local problem solving. It worked. Infant Mortality was dramatically reduced once women gained access to prenatal care. During the four years of operation under CAA 1,545 babies were born and the County Infant Mortality Rate dropped from 11.7% to 8.7% falling below the State of Michigan average for the first time. The Center expanded to provide full family care in 1995. Foote Hospital, one of our partners in this program, brought the Center for Family Health under its wing as a subsidiary corporation in September 1995.

Our history is rich, and we continue to make history. In 1996, Region II CAA was proud to be selected as the first agency in the State to pilot Early Head Start, a program working with families with infants from birth to age three. We were one of seventeen projects in the nation that participated in a research project to assess the effectiveness of this early intervention. Will Early Head Start become the model for the “Project Head Start” of the future?

One day, we will look back on current “experiments”: Literacy Projects, which use volunteers to teach adults to read; the Consumers Power Holistic Weatherization Program which effectively blended public and private funds for a highly acclaimed energy conservation effort; and Community Dispute Resolution which attempts to reduce court cases through problem solving. In this changing world, we’ve assisted low-income residents with understanding Electric Deregulation, piloted a Managed Care Ombudsman Project and helped educate and enroll families in HMO’s.

In 1996, CAA was awarded its first HUD Supportive Housing Program funds to provide housing assistance to the homeless. In 1999, we expanded this supportive housing work with 18 units of transitional housing using scattered site rental subsidies, provided in partnership with the local domestic violence shelter, AWARE.

In 1998 the CAA Board refocused priorities, shortened the mission statement to a more concise, “Promoting Self-Sufficiency” and set directions for the Agency in five target areas most likely to enable local citizens to become self-sufficient: Work, Housing, Education, Community Development and Health & Nutrition. We introduced a fresh new look that included a new name “Community Action Agency”, a new logo, a yellow “Action Cat” mascot and four colorful, energetic kids ready to take action. We lead a community task force to develop community consensus around self-sufficiency, what it means, how to get there. Community Action Agency added new work and training programs focused on helping adults find jobs and preparing youth for advanced education and work. In 1998, we became the Work First provider for all three counties. Since 1998, CAA has placed over 6,000 adults in jobs.

CAA continues to expand this housing work. We were awarded $751,638 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2001 to develop affordable housing in the City of Jackson. Again partnering with AWARE, we have purchased and are renovating five neighboring residential units and provide nine additional scattered site rental subsidies.

In 1999, CAA became a Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) and stepped up an involvement in housing and community development. CAA formed a Limited Partnership with Sterling Group, Inc., a multi-family housing developer, to build Ashton Ridge Apartments located in Jackson County. On July 1, 2000 families were moving into the 144-unit affordable housing complex, which has remained fully occupied. Our Head Start classroom, located at the apartment complex, has been very successful.

In 2000, CAA successfully applied for Michigan State Housing Development Administration (MSHDA) funding through the Jackson County Housing Continuum of Care and continues the innovative landlord tenant mediation project through this funding each year. Also during 2000, CAA organized and now chairs the Hillsdale Housing Continuum of Care, and secured $40,000 in MSHDA funding for Hillsdale County in 2001.

In 2001, we began three new important programs for local residents: A fatherhood initiative designed to increase father involvement in the lives of their children; a Micro Loan Fund in Lenawee County that provides financing to start up small or “micro” businesses (the first loan was granted in December, 2001) and the Individual Development Account (IDA) program, which offers an innovative way for low-income families to save money for homeownership, advanced education or small business start up. We were awarded one of three IDA regional coordinator designations in the State of Michigan to support and expand the capacity of IDAs.

2002 was a challenging year, we faced serious cut backs - the State eliminated $1.6 million in funding for our full day preschool program forcing us to lay off staff. On the positive side, our systems held up, we weathered the changes. Housing and Community Development remain a top priority as we work to improve neighborhoods and rehabilitate homes. CAA began administering Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) funds for Jackson and Hillsdale Counties. Houses are rehabilitated and emergency repairs are provided. The Sterling Group, Inc. began two additional housing developments in Jackson County. Heritage Place at the Woods is a senior complex while Arbors at the Woods is a family complex. Both developments have several scattered sites within each complex to serve individuals with special needs.

In 2003, we began a Rural Community Development Initiative/Project Good Start program funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Hillsdale County. CAA provides training and technical assistance to facilitate community development planning in designated rural communities. CAA, as a partner in the Partnership Park Neighborhood Preservation Project in Jackson, applied for Neighborhood Preservation Project (NPP) funding which provides general beautification of neighborhood, homeowner and rental rehab loans and new construction of affordable housing. This project encompasses 16 city blocks, there are: offices, retail, a YMCA, vacant land, four churches and one park. CAA has applied for a NPP grant to rehab downtown Morenci in Lenawee County. These are the first of what we hope are many neighborhood community development projects that CAA will be a partner in throughout our tri-county area.

In 2004, CAA embarked on an Anti-Poverty Campaign to raise public awareness about poverty. We focused our energy on gathering information about poverty in our community and published a document called: "The Poverty Report: The Real Story of Poverty in Jackson, Lenawee and Hillsdale Counties".

Staff formed anti-poverty task forces to redesign how we do advocacy and community organizing. Using The Poverty Report along with other tools we developed such as Faces of Poverty and Myths & Facts, we presented "Train the Trainer" trainings for our staff, Board, Advisory Councils and interested community leaders and organizations. They are now prepared to present information on poverty in their communities to interested civic groups.

In 2005, CAA's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program prepared 1,579 tax returns using 52 trained volunteers. These tax returns brought over $1,456,800 back to families in our three counties.

The face of poverty in this country has changed quite a bit from the Appalachian poor to the "working poor" and the face of poverty in each community is unique. There are many proven strategies to help people gain (or regain) a foothold and work themselves out of poverty. Poverty hurts, poverty for the most part is curable, and it is our hope that as we learn more about who is poor and why they are poor, we will agree that poverty is unacceptable and work together to improve the living conditions of local residents.

Through it all, Community Action has continued to operate many quality programs and help citizens in all three counties through home weatherization, community development, income tax assistance, emergency aid, parent education, elementary success and outreach among others. Even more importantly, we have continued to advocate for social and economic opportunity for all people so that everyone can enjoy the benefit of a self-sufficient life style. 

State History

Until September 30, 1982, funding and oversight for the more than 900 Community Action Agencies operating in the country was provided directly by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government and passed through three Federal Departments: the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO); Community Services Administration (CSA); and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

However, in 1981 the Omnibus Reconciliation Act (PL 97-35) was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan creating the Community Service Block Grant (CSBG). CSBG funds were passed directly to the States and gave the States responsibility for the distribution and regulation of funds within a state (except for federal regulations found in the Omnibus Reconciliation Act itself).

The Michigan Legislature responded quickly by passing the Michigan Economic and Social Opportunity Act (PA 230 of 1981) which took effect October 1, 1981. This Act mandated the continuation of Community Action Agencies in Michigan to “reduce the causes, conditions and effects of poverty and promote social and economic opportunities that foster self sufficiency for low income persons.” PA 230 authorized the Bureau of Community Services (BCS) to administer CAA programs and created a 15 member Commission on Economic and Social Opportunity to provide a statewide forum on state policies and poverty programs and to act as advisors in providing information to the Governor, State Legislature, Congressional Delegations and other officials in the State.

BCS began operating Community Action Programs in October, 1981 under the Department of Labor. The State Plan designated Community Action Agencies as the primary providers of CSBG funded services to low income; handicapped and senior citizens.

In 1992, BCS merged with the Bureau of Employment and Training to form a new administrative department called Bureau of Employment, Training and Community Services (BETCS). Under Governor John Engler, the Bureau was placed in a new Commission within the State of Michigan, The Jobs Commission. The Jobs Commission administered the programs from 1992 through most of 1995. In October, 1995, administration of the CAA’s was moved into the Family Independence Agency (formerly DSS).

Currently, 30 CAA’s serve all 83 counties in Michigan and are still funded through CSBG.

Most of the CAA’s (24) are private nonprofit entities; six are part of local governments. Many receive considerable portions of their budgets from private, state, local government or federal funds other than CSBG.

Community Action is more easily identified by what we do than through our name. Nearly 72% of Head Start Children in Michigan are served through CAA’s and over 8,000 homes per year are insulated and weatherized by CAA. Community Action is the largest human service network outside of state government.

National History

Community Action Agencies were created in 1964 as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty through the Economic Opportunity Act. The ultimate purpose of the “Act” was to give an opportunity for upward mobility to those who had been historically unable to participate in the mainstream of American life. A new Federal Department and a Cabinet seat were created for the Office of Economic Opportunity and Sargent Shriver was named to lead the effort.

The Economic Opportunity Act stated that the basic purpose of Community Action was “to stimulate a better focusing of all available local, State, private and Federal resources upon the goal of enabling low income families and low income individuals of all ages, in rural and urban areas, to attain the skills, knowledge, and motivations and secure the opportunities needed for them to become self sufficient.” Community Action Agencies were purposefully established under a new, neutral Department to enable equal access of government funding from all Departments.

The wording of the Act “stimulate a better focusing of all available . . .resources”, gave CAA a primarily catalytic mission: To make the entire community more responsive to the needs and interests of the low income by mobilizing resources and bringing about greater institutional sensitivity. A CAA’s effectiveness, therefore, is measured not only by the services which it directly provides but, more importantly, by the improvements and changes it achieves in the community’s attitudes and practices toward the poor, and in the allocation and focusing of public and private resources for antipoverty purposes.

To carry out this mission effectively, the CAA must work with three significant groups in the community: The low income; the public sector and the private sector.

“The theory of community action was that what poor people needed were new neighborhood based organizations. As it were, there were many government efforts to help the poor- nutrition programs, employment programs, welfare programs- but there was no coordination among them, and no concerted attempt had been made to find out what services the people in the poor neighborhoods most needed. Under community action, the government would set up a kind of planning board in the neighborhood, the board would consult with the poor people there, and, eventually, a mission would emerge. In principle, a Community Action Agency could do anything- it was not an anti poverty program so much as a mechanism through which new anti- poverty programs would be invented. Also, rather than take on all the traditional functions of a government agency itself, it would be small and would coordinate the work of existing agencies. The only rule was that the solution to the neighborhood’s problems could not be imposed from above (that is, from Washington).”*

As the community brings together its diverse resources and talents; leveraging additional public and private resources; enlisting volunteers; involving consumers in problem solving; broadening the circle of economic activity and encouraging participation in public life, the productivity and cohesiveness of the entire community is enhanced and the barriers to economic participation and self sufficiency are lifted.