By ANNE SAUNDERS Rochester Business Journal December 23, 2016 It has been a long process, but the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative is launching the first of several programs intended to help city residents out of poverty.

In early 2017, both peer and professional mentoring programs begin as two-year pilots, and data is to be collected and reviewed to determine what is working and how best to grow or adapt the efforts. The cost for the mentoring is $2.9 million for 27 months.

Leonard Brock, director of the anti-poverty coalition operating under the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc., said the term “professional” is used to refer to the coaches or mentors working with participants, but the goal of both the peer and the professional approaches is to empower people, not tell them what to do.

“It’s not a hierarchy. It’s not us telling you what to do. It’s a partnership,” said Jennifer Lowe at a recent two-day training session for mentors that also drew representatives from several local agencies connected to the effort.

Lowe, from Boston-based agency EMPath, which is short for Economic Mobility Pathways, emphasized the importance for mentors to “create a quiet space for people,” a “place to envision and dream.”

For many struggling in poverty, days are a massive juggling act, trying to get to places on time, deal with the needs of family, work, run a household and navigate various crises. The impoverished deal frequently with people who think they are not doing enough and a larger society that often blames poverty on the individual.

That makes it hard for anyone to set long-term goals, find the needed resources and plan ahead for emergencies so goals remain within reach. The approach RMAPI has adopted requires mentors to focus on people’s strengths, such as those juggling skills, and help them leverage those strengths to move out of poverty.

“This work takes time. It’s not something you can do in a day or a week or a month. Poverty is a complicated thing. It takes time to navigate out of it,” said Lowe, who is vice president of learning and member networks for EMPath.

Additional training in January will focus on issues of cultural diversity and dealing with people exposed to emotional or physical trauma, a common component of poverty. When the hiring and training process is complete, eight mentors will be available to work with up to 150 participants.

This starts making concrete the results of a year of meetings involving nonprofit leaders, service providers and people living in poverty, Brock said. As part of that process, RMAPI came up with a set of 33 recommendations and three areas of focus. Adult mentoring was one of those three areas of focus.

EMPath’s coaching model was chosen by RMAPI for implementation, along with a second model that concentrates on mentoring through peer groups. That model, adopted from another Boston-based nonprofit, the Family Independence Initiative, brings five to eight participants together to share their goals, exchange ideas and support one another on the path to greater financial security.

Each participant is given a computer and access to a software program to record their goals, track their progress and evaluate priorities. Peer groups also will be in a position to help each other, perhaps by sharing transportation or child care, officials said.

One person is slated to be hired in 2017 to serve as a manager and liaison to help groups get started and trained in using the computer system. But the direction any group takes is in its own hands.

The mentoring efforts are to focus on people living in the Marketview Heights, Beechwood and EMMA—East Main Street, Mustard Street and Atlantic Avenue—neighborhoods. But the programs could be scaled up and used elsewhere if they are successful, officials said.

Brock said in both cases, the peer and professional mentoring had solid data showing they had helped other people reach financial independence.

“There was a very complicated prioritization process,” Brock said.

In offering the two approaches, participants get a choice. Some may prefer having a trained coach, and some may prefer to work with their peers.

One of the appeals of these programs is the way they put participants in the driver’s seat, Brock said. Any future efforts will be guided by the data and the needs identified by local participants and their families.

Catholic Family Center of the Diocese of Rochester is the lead agency in implementing the two mentoring programs, along with the Community Place of Greater Rochester and Action for a Better Community Inc. The two mentoring programs are slated to run for two years and involve some 150 participants each.

Over that time period, data is to be collected, and universities have agreed to assist in analyzing and developing insights into what is working or not. This includes researchers at Notre Dame University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rochester Institute of Technology, said Ron Rizzo, who is managing the program for Catholic Family Center.

Some financial resources also can be deployed on behalf of participants in the mentoring programs thanks to state and local funding for RMAPI. Depending on the issues that come up, there may be services available in the community or grants sought to meet specific needs, Rizzo said. He hopes to build relationships with local employers, especially those located near the target neighborhoods.

After two years, the RMAPI coalition hopes to know more about what works and what obstacles need to be addressed to help people get and keep good jobs and permanently reduce poverty levels in the city. The larger goal is to reduce poverty in Rochester and Monroe County by 50 percent in 15 years.

As the mentoring rolls out, RMAPI will move forward with a second area of focus: early childhood supports, Brock said. That includes access to high-quality, affordable child care and support for parents in their role as their children’s first teachers through in-home parent education.

“The next building block will be identifying the needs of the children in these families,” he said.

12/23/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email