It Only Takes a Spark: United Church Outreach Ministry’s Crucial Role in Helping Community Members Succeed

Alexandra set up a work station in the kitchen of her new house.

by BettyBeth Johns, community development manager, United Church Outreach Ministry (UCOM) in Wyoming, Mich.

Alexandra’s UCOM journey began with a small letter-sized poster hanging in the food pantry: If you want to learn to take charge of your financial future, sign up for FREE financial literacy classes here at UCOM. Something sparked in her. She signed up for the class on a whim.

She was feeling defeated, and directionless, and unsure of how her family was ever going to realize their dreams of prosperity. She had abandoned her personal goal of becoming a nurse, dropping out of college to return to Michigan to care for her dying father. She had met and married the love of her life, and the children came along, and there was happiness in that. But the realities of living in cramped quarters with her ailing mother and financing three growing children on one modest income had taken its toll on the whole family.  Alex was feeling tired and defeated the day she signed up for classes.

Even though it was an informal setting and the curriculum was pretty easy to master, Alex was energized throughout the course. She set about the weekly homework and soon had financial goals that made sense and seemed achievable. Her husband was on board and by the end of the five week course, Alex was sharing her dream of returning to school and once again pursuing a medical career.

Alexandra reached her goal of moving her family into a larger home.

Leveraging a partnership within the Employment Services Collaborative, Alex was soon referred for the Certified Nursing Assistant Program, agreeing to be in a pilot cohort that provided a full tuition scholarship in exchange for a year’s service at an area long term care facility.

She sailed through the entrance exam and was soon graduating from the CNA program, passing the state test and working full time. Building on her momentum, new goals were created … and achieved.

She paid down debt. She saved for holiday giving. She made grocery lists and shopped sales and repurposed clothing and household goods. Alexandra also explained to her children about how satisfying it could be to wait for the good things and planned a trip in lieu of piles of presents. With each small victory came greater confidence and that confidence grew into bigger dreams.

Housing was next on the list. She budgeted, worked extra hours, and saved every dollar she didn’t need for her family’s basic needs. Her husband worked extra shifts, too, and was excited about their progress. They could see results and they were communicating better and working toward shared goals. They pre-qualified for a mortgage, watched for a house in their price range and pounced when one came available. They found good used furniture, scrubbed the place from top to bottom and moved in just shy of the year they had given themselves to reach their home ownership goal.

For the first time, Alexandra can pay for her son’s sports activities.

As Alexandra shared her story with UCOM staff, she became emotional talking about her most meaningful moment of success. “For the first time ever, I was able to pay for my son to be a part of sports. I did that. He loves wrestling and he qualified for the state finals!” she says. To be able to be the person that provided this opportunity to her son was an unexpected and very satisfying bonus to all of the sweat equity and hard work that had taken place over the previous two years.

Next on the list is a better job. She did very well at the senior living center but wanted more responsibility and better pay. She set her sights on a position with a larger health care company: one that she knew would provide tuition support for her return to school. She interviewed for an entry level position but was bumped to a higher responsibility, better paying opportunity and she got the job. Her future plans include certification as a surgical tech and, eventually, that once lost dream of becoming a nurse.

When chatting with Alexandra, it is impossible not to catch her joyful spirit. She is looking forward to a bright future and credits much of her turnaround to a very simple, subtle core value at UCOM: people are capable. All people have potential. UCOM will do what it can to open doors and unleash possibility, even when the world is saying otherwise.

“To have so many people believe in me, especially at a time when I didn’t even believe in myself, made all the difference,” Alex adds.

Alex always had the ability and desire — she just needed to be lifted to a place of hope. UCOM is humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to be the catalyst for so many life changing “sparks” of possibility.

CHHSM member United Church Outreach Ministry, a covenanted ministry of the UCC’s regional Michigan Conference, values individuals and builds community in southwestern Kent County by providing material and educational assistance to meet basic needs, improve quality of life, and promote self-sufficiency.

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