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SGF financial stability program goes national

Drew Lewis Foundation’s RISE is set for a May debut in Colorado

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 An economic self-sufficiency program developed by a Springfield nonprofit is about to debut outside of the state.

Officials with the Drew Lewis Foundation Inc. say its RISE program, which stands for reaching independence through support and education, has a start date of May 17 in Pueblo, Colorado. It marks the first time the nonprofit’s initiative has stretched beyond Missouri. 

RISE serves as a yearlong effort to help participants reach financial stability through coaching coupled with curriculum in areas including education, employment, debt reduction and parenting. The program emerged from the Northwest Project, a five-year initiative that began in 2016 to reduce poverty in Springfield’s Zone 1. 

As the Northwest Project concluded last year, Drew Lewis Foundation officials planned to sell RISE as a fee-based system to organizations across the state. Amy Blansit, Drew Lewis Foundation CEO and RISE project director, said extending its reach outside Missouri was considered a long-term goal. However, a staff member had a Colorado connection. 

Pueblo native Jessica Smith, the nonprofit’s assistant director of programs, said she saw parallels between the needs of her former hometown and the foundation’s mission to increase household income, social capital and community engagement among families. 

“One of every four residents in Pueblo lives in poverty. That’s the working poor,” Smith said. “That’s who we serve primarily through the Drew Lewis Foundation.”

According to a 2020 study by publication 24/7 Wall St., Pueblo is the poorest metropolitan area in Colorado. Of the more than 30,000 people living in poverty in the metro area, 9.3% live in communities with poverty rates of at least 40%.

“I started reaching out to people in Pueblo to try and get the word out about RISE and the Drew Lewis Foundation’s mission, giving a hand up and not a handout,” Smith said. 

It worked, as Smith got a response from Rob Reyes, a pastor at Praise Assembly of God in Pueblo. Although the church already provided outreach efforts in programs such as Celebrate Recovery, Reyes told her they needed something to help people continually move forward in self-sustainability.

“Well, I said, ‘RISE is perfect, then, because that’s exactly what we do,’” Smith said. 

Expanded reach
Officials at the Drew Lewis Foundation, which operates out of The Fairbanks, 1126 N. Broadway Ave., say RISE is packaged like a membership program with the annual cost ranging $2,000-$2,500. The nonprofit offers both live and prerecorded education sessions for organizations where they can go into its online classroom and watch eight hours of staff presentations. 

“They’re learning about what we do, what the systems are we have in place,” Blansit said, adding the Pueblo church is spending $2,500 to gain access. “We also have handouts, marketing and they have access to all curriculum for adults and youths.”

Upon its launch six years ago, the Northwest Project received $1.3 million in private money through Community Foundation of the Ozarks, the Stanley and Elaine Ball Foundation and The Musgrave Foundation. Blansit said CFO continues to fund RISE at $50,000 for at least the next three years as the Drew Lewis Foundation continues to expand the program. Additionally, an anonymous donor in 2020 committed to give $85,000 annually for three years.

RISE has also expanded in Missouri beyond Springfield, as the program is offered in Aurora, Eldon, Monett, Neosho and Salem, nonprofit officials say. Due to a grant the Drew Lewis Foundation received this year from the Missouri Foundation for Health, RISE also will expand this summer to five counties in the Cape Girardeau area. The three-year grant is for $63,000 annually, Blansit said, adding the nonprofit receives $10,000 in annual renewal fees through the program.

The intent in Cape Girardeau is to capitalize on resources such as nonprofits, churches and schools already in the community. 

“We’ll teach them how to add RISE into programming they already have,” Blansit said.

Cape Girardeau has the highest poverty rate in Missouri, according to the 24/7 Wall St. study. Among the metro area’s poor population, 27.8% live in neighborhoods where 4 out of 10 residents live in poverty. That’s well above Missouri’s statewide poverty rate of 12.1% and Springfield’s 21.7% mark, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.  

Finding support
RISE has worked with 160 households in its program locations, impacting the lives of 640 individuals over the past six years, Blansit said. There’s no income requirement or charge for participants, but they must have safe housing and a method of transportation for employment.

“This program is for more than just an individual who has recently moved into housing and creating stability,” Blansit said. “It’s really open to a pretty large population when we look at all the insecurities occurring across the country.”

Smith said core programming covers 16 weeks, including classes on financial empowerment, developing self-sufficiency goals and time management. Participants then move on to more in-depth instruction and personal development.

“Everything that they’re doing, they’re getting support but they’re putting in the work,” she said. “When they’re ready to make a change, they’re going to make it happen and we’re there alongside them.”

The nonprofit provides participants with an extensive questionnaire to fill out every six months, including questions about health and finances, Blansit said. It also includes a 16-point self-sufficiency score.

Smith and Drew Deardorff, director of programs, are going to Pueblo next month to facilitate the program’s launch. It’s the start of what Blansit said she hopes will be greater expansions to come. While most of the nonprofit’s funding for RISE is within Missouri, staff are looking for grants and donations that could sustain more efforts on a national level. 

“If the floodgates open, we’re excited for that and ready to do it,” she said. “What we’ve really tried to do is create information that if a community is ready, we have everything they can use to do self-directed learning to at least understand the program and what it’s going to take.”

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