By Caurie Putnam / Democrat & Chronicle

Catholic Family Center — the lead agency of the programs, which are part of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) — released data on participants in one program that showed the average earned household income increased by 118% and an average increase in employment of 110%.

In major areas like housing health, education and employment, 80% percent of adult mentoring program participants advanced from “crisis” or “at-risk” to “stable” in at least one area of social supports. That includes things like housing stability, physical health, mental health, family stability, peer supports, education and employment.

This comes after RMAPI last month shared an ambitious policy agenda for the year. Launched five years ago, RMAPI has struggled to find its footing, but the vision for helping families find their way out of poverty is seeing signs of success, the Notre Dame results showed.

“We were certainly counting on seeing positive results because this methodology [adult mentoring] has been used successfully around the country,” said Marlene Bessette, president and CEO of Catholic Family Center.

Employment increased roughly from 40 to 84 participants of those still active or graduated from Bridges to Success. The average earned household income increased from $447/month to $975/month. Many of the participants were and still are receiving social service benefits. Over time, as employment increased, their average earned income has increased as well.

The numbers were culled from participants in the pilot’s two-year Bridges to Success program, which uses full-time, professional mentors to help adults throughout Monroe County.

The program was implemented through a partnership with Action for a Better Community and The Community Place of Greater Rochester.

Adult mentoring partners people with the motivation and desire to make changes in their lives with someone who can help them think through short and long-term goals.

“It’s about creating a trusting relationship with someone who knows how to navigate the system because our systems are really complicated,” Bessette explained.

Another finding of the Bridges to Success pilot program, which was modeled after the successful, data-driven Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath) program in Boston, was that it seems to benefit those with the greatest economic need the most.

“A key insight from the results so far is that the Bridges to Success program provides the greatest benefit to participants having the initially lowest employment prospects as opposed to a comparison group that did not receive Bridges to Success services,” said Ron Rizzo, Adult Mentoring program director.

“There were a lot of assumptions in the community going into this that the people who were relatively stable and just needed a little help would be attracted to this program,” he said, “but we actually found the opposite.”

Participants, who began in the rolling, two-year program in 2017, received personalized support in several self-identified goals ranging from securing child care and transportation to finding a full-time job. A data comparison group only received one referral in an area of their expressed greatest need, such as employment, during their initial program application meeting.

Bridges to Success participants met with adult mentors twice a month in person and could also reach out to them as needed via text or phone. The mentors also escorted the participants to appointments if requested.

“Adult mentoring is successful because it’s a pull from the individual rather than a push from an agency,” said Jerome Underwood, president and CEO of Action for a Better Community and co-leader of the RMAPI steering committee.

“The individual has to raise their hand and say, “I want in.’ It’s like having a personal trainer, cheerleader, someone who will listen; with an element of case management, too.”

The second pilot program – the Family Independence Initiative –ran from 2018 to 2019 and used a peer mentoring approach, rather than professional mentors. In this approach participants self-organized into peer groups composed of co-workers, friends, neighbors, parishioners and other heads of households that met regularly to help each other create social support networks and meet financial goals.

Numbers released by Catholic Family Center, which implemented the Family Independence Initiative in partnership with FII-National, about that pilot were also positive, with an average 32% increase in family income for participants and 24% average increase in employment. Family Independence Initiative had 150 participants; Bridges to Success, 160.

Partnerships contributed to the overall success of these programs, Rizzo said.

The City of Rochester Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives provided door to door workers to help distribute information for recruitment and also helped to vet and evaluate the results that Notre Dame analyzed for the study.

The final 50 people in Bridges to Success’ pilot program will graduate in April. The program just received funding for another 75 participants via the New York City-based nonprofit Mother Cabrini Health Foundation.

Organizers hope data they collect from this second cohort will help them shore up long-term funding so adult mentoring programs like Bridges to Success can continue in the region.

“What we’re hoping for is to fund the program long term,” said Underwood. “Now that it’s proven to be effective, we want to increase funding and scope. Things like Bridges are transformational because they’re going to be systemic in the fight against poverty. Really, the most impactful work we do in the fight against poverty is with individuals.”

Shawn Futch, Bridges to Success program director, agrees. She has had the most face-to-face interaction with participants and has seen them grow immensely.

Notre Dame Lab for Economic Opportunities was the independent evaluator for the pilot.

“When you look at the data, it’s more than the number of people who got a job,” Futch said. “That’s important, but not all of it. Hopefully, after two years we’ve taught participants how to advocate for themselves, so when they graduate they’re able to go after things themselves.”

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