More than 40 years ago, the Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action program was founded with the goal of promoting self-sufficiency and improving quality of life among individuals struggling with poverty.
When executive director Doug Stanley first came to Athens, it was to attend Ohio University. However, he ended up staying in the area, becoming involved with HAPCAP in 1980. Now, more than 30 years later, he is responsible for overseeing all of the operations and divisions of HAPCAP. “It’s been a great ride,” he said.
Jessica Stroh, who is the agency’s community services director, is from the Cleveland area, and, like Stanley, came to Athens to go to OU. She felt connected with the area and began working with HAPCAP in 2002.
While Stanley, Stroh and many others work to keep things running smoothly, Jessie Schmitzer, AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America, does her best to publicize the many programs that HAPCAP runs, especially through social media networks.
“I don’t think I’d be the person I am today (without HAPCAP). They have given me the strength and the courage to do what I do now.”
-Kelly McGhee, HAPCAP Board President
Schmitzer is an OU graduate who hails from Logan, Ohio, and, because she has eight siblings, is quite familiar with the struggle that many local families face.
Schmitzer has plenty of things to publicize. HAPCAP operates about 40 programs in several areas, including child development, food and nutrition, housing and community development, and community services, which encompasses transportation as well as employment and training programs.
HAPCAP’s work in transportation services began when the agency worked to save Logan Public Transit after the for-profit company that had been running it began to fail. The attempt was successful, and now residents can travel to Logan or up to two miles outside of city limits for somewhere between $1 and $4, depending on the situation.
“(Transportation) truly is one of the most important pieces in a family’s life in terms of trying to access really critical needs that a family has — whether it’s food, doctor’s appointments, employment,” Stroh said. “If people can’t get where they need to get, they’re not going to be able to take care of themselves.” William Anderson, 66, has been in a wheelchair for 41 years. After losing muscles in his right shoulder, he also lost his ability to drive.
“After I lost the muscles, I really lost my freedom. I wasn’t able to go and transfer and do all the things I really liked to do,” he said. He was able to call his sister or his son if he needed a ride, but they could only assist when they had time. Having to use that system was difficult for Anderson.
When he learned of a friend using Logan Public Transit, he decided to give it a try. Now, almost year later, Anderson uses the transit three to five times per week. Anderson enjoys his newfound ability to get to doctor’s appointments, restaurants and stores without having to depend on family members. “It’s much more fun now because I have a way to get to town just about whenever I want to go, I just call them up,” he said. “It really helps me out a lot.”
Transit drivers always greet Anderson with a handshake and engage him in conversation while driving him into town.
Stroh explained that the drivers are very aware that in several cases, they are the only person their rider will see on any given day. As such, they work to be as benevolent as possible.
Anderson said that the drivers have helped him with many things, such as bringing his groceries and other purchases into his home. “It’s kind of just like having a personalized service. It’s like having your own limo driver,” he said with a smile.
In the child development service area, programs such as Early Head Start and Head Start work to provide support for mothers and their children as early as the prenatal stage.
Kelly McGhee, who was born and raised in Logan, became a Head Start parent in 1994. Though she was shy, she wanted to be involved in her son’s education, so she began to volunteer at the Head Start Center in Logan. From there, she first became a member of the Head Start Parent Policy Council and then of the HAPCAP board. Ultimately, she became president of the board — a position that she currently holds.
Stroh said that it is not unusual for parents of Head Start children to become involved in the program because it is “holistic.” “It’s not just about the kid, but it’s trying to bring the parents into the classroom, get them involved,” she said.
McGhee genuinely enjoys both her work with the board and her ability to help others who are in need. She attributes her newfound outgoingness to her involvement with HAPCAP. “I don’t think I’d be the person I am today (without HAPCAP),” she said. “They have given me the strength and the courage to do what I do now.”
She spoke highly of Head Start’s impact on her two boys. Through Head Start activities, they learned the alphabet and how to read, as well as how to interact and play.
“They were ready for kindergarten,” she said. She added that both of her children ended up attending college. Some Head Start participants receive more than just educational benefits. “There’s a lot of children out there that only get a meal one day and it’s through HAPCAP, through the Head Start center,” she explained. “And they expect that meal too, because they come in hungry.”
The teaching programs provided by HAPCAP are not only for children. Some HAPCAP programs focus on retraining dislocated workers and teaching new skills to the long-term unemployed.
One such program is called the Learn and Work program, in which those who qualify can receive governmental financial assistance in exchange for working on projects delegated by HAPCAP.
Nikina Fletcher, a 35-year-old who lives in Glouster, Ohio, is using that assistance to help pay for every day costs while she pursues a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science as a full-time online college student.
She hopes to eventually become a counselor who helps area youth stay away from drugs and alcohol. “If I can only help one student, at least I’ve helped them, and then maybe they can help somebody,” she said.
Fletcher said that some HAPCAP employees were instrumental in convincing her to do the Learn and Work program and to chase her dream. “I didn’t think I would like it in the beginning,” she said. “But once you get over (to HAPCAP) and you get to know everybody — everybody over there smiles at you every day. It’s a great place to go.”
Some projects Fletcher has worked on include helping tear down a burned out home and picking up litter in the local park. “Anything and everything that they need us to do, we jump to it and do it,” she said.
Schmitzer thinks that some of the best success stories come out of the Learn and Work program. She enjoys watching the participants work with such eager and positive attitudes.
“It’s really great to see, because I think there’s a misconception with a lot of people about people that are struggling in poverty that they’re lazy or that they don’t want to do anything, and I don’t think that that’s true,” she said.
For Fletcher, the Learn and Work program has served as an opportunity to turn her life around. “I’ve had troubles in the past, I’ve been in trouble in the past with the judicial system,” she said. “Looking back, it was a good thing that — not a good thing that I did it — but it was a good thing that it happened and got me out of there, and now I’m on the right track.”
Clients are not the only ones affected by HAPCAP. HAPCAP has been Stanley’s entire professional life. Being involved with it has “meant the world” to him, given him a perspective on life and taught him that he should not take anything for granted.
“I think it helps make you a better person, to understand that many people have just an incredibly hard time making it day-to-day,” he said. Stanley knows that until the Athens area develops economically and industrially, poverty will likely remain rampant.
“I wish we could do more, I really do, but I know we do what we can and I know we’ve made an impact in lots of people’s lives,” he said. Stroh said that working with HAPCAP is usually not too emotionally taxing, though it can get overwhelming every once in a while. “It’s terrible some days, it really is,” she said. ”I could just start crying right now thinking about it.”
She finds solace in the success stories she sees. She described situations where people who were homeless and jobless ultimately gained employment and housing because of their own hard work. “It’s been very powerful,” she said.
“Most of the families that we see and that we work with, they are trying very, very hard to make ends meet,” Stroh added. “Some of them are working multiple jobs. They’re doing jobs on the side, on the weekends, in the middle of the night, whatever it could take to help provide for their family.”
Schmitzer agreed that many people in poverty are hard workers.
“When people come here, my first thought isn’t that they’re coming here because they want to get all this free money,” she said. “My first thought is they’re coming here because they’re taking the first step toward breaking out of poverty by being here and by getting things back on track again.”