Community organizer Odell Murray said the Enterprise Community program that is bringing hope to impoverished rural areas near Augusta is a fresh twist on federal assistance.
The money still comes from the top. But the ideas come from the people on the bottom.
"This is a grass-roots program," said Mr. Murray, a community organizer in the Wrens district Enterprise Community zone. "I think it's going to work."
Wrens is one of 10 Census tracts in the Aiken-Augusta area that were awarded federal funding when the Empowerment Zone initiative was launched in December 1994 to help uplift the most impoverished areas in the country.
Communities in Burke, Hancock, Jefferson, McDuffie, Taliaferro and Warren counties were awarded a total of $3 million to be doled out and spent over the next two years on community centers, education and job training.
The funded communities in the area are among the 106 urban and rural regions awarded money for the 10-year program designed to empower poor people to help themselves through training and micro-enterprise loans. Program organizers hope the $3 million over two years can be used to secure other grants.
The local program is administered through the CSRA Regional Development Center and through an executive director who coordinates a group of community organizers in the field.
The community centers are the hub of the program and are designed to pool educational programs, such as parenting classes for single parents, job training and other services that may previously have been unavailable in these poor areas.
"We're hoping people can go to a center and it's a one-stop shop," said James Peoples, the CSRA Regional Development Center project director. "They'll feel comfortable going there because it's part of their community."
The local program - which is 14 months old - suffered some start-up sluggishness from being a new venture and from the logistics of getting 10 spread-out communities working from the same page, Mr. Peoples said.
About half of the community centers are in place and the areas that don't have a permanent center are operating out of temporary locations.
"We haven't been able to act as quickly as we'd like," said Mr. Peoples, who believes the accessibility of the centers will result in services for many poor people who have no way to travel to get help. "But it's coming along."
Through surveys and talking to community organizers, people in the local Enterprise Community zone listed education, jobs and housing as their three main concerns.
The immediate goals of the program are to decrease poverty, lower the number of substandard homes and increase jobs.
In Wrens, the local enterprise group used the federal money to remodel an old JROTC building. The center holds a parenting class for single mothers, primarily to help them learn basic parenting skills.
A General Equivalency Diploma class started in August already has 38 adult high school dropouts enrolled. There's also an after-school camp one day a week sponsored by the Ogeechee Area Mental Health Center. Other programs are being planned, Mr. Murray said.
John Patterson, 26, is one of the students attending the GED class at night. He's been out of work 11 months because of a job-related injury. He said that with a GED he hopes to go to technical school and get a computer job.
"More education and I can get a better job, maybe more money," Mr. Patterson said. "I'd rather do it here because it's closer to home."
Funding for the 10 community centers is secure through next year. But Mr. Peoples said the first two years' funding is designed to lay a foundation from which the organization hopes to get other grants during the next decade.
Organizers received a $500,000 micro-loan fund in April and are surveying loan applications from small entrepreneurs who otherwise wouldn't be eligible for a loan.
A $3 million job training grant was applied for and organizers are waiting for word on the grant. If it is awarded, it would help give poor people job skills they need to become sufficient, Mr. Peoples said. The group is in the process of applying for a telecommunications grant.
"We've got a lot of irons in the fire," Mr. Peoples said. "There's a strong desire to see some change and a new attitude in the area."
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