“I know of a couple places if I put Pauldoe down, I won’t get that job,” said Sonya Freeman, a 32-year-old self-employed mother of three.
Freeman and her children, ages 5, 6 and 14, live in a red-brick, one-story apartment in the Athens Housing Authority’s Jack R. Wells residential community, known to many as simply Pauldoe.
Police cruisers can be seen in Pauldoe at nearly anytime throughout the day. Perhaps their presence is due to the 30 plus crimes in 2010, according to the .
Freeman believes she’s denied job opportunities based on her Pauldoe address.
“Because I live here I’m only subjected to a restaurant job,” said Freeman. “Checkers up the street will hire you, but if you want to do corporate work you can’t put this address down.”
Freeman has a G.E.D. and currently works out of her home as a typist, preparing documents for law firms and medical offices. In Athens, Freeman has applied for jobs doing similar work steadily over the past three years. She hasn’t received one call back.
Freeman’s story is not unique.
Many people are un- or under-employed in Athens-Clarke County, where the poverty rate has been reported to be as high as 39 percent for its 116,000 population.
Enter Whatever It Takes, a local initiative dedicated to ensuring that every child in Athens-Clarke County is on track to get a post-high school education by 2020. It has received federal money to develop a ten-year implementation plan and hopes to be fully funded soon.
“This is our moment for this community,” said Erica Gilbertson, program director of Whatever It Takes Athens, which was launched in 2010. Gilbertson is referring to several underserved neighborhoods in Athens.
The initiative is modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, which started in 1997. It combines financial and educational resources to help 17,000 children and adults in a 100-block section of Harlem. The program relies heavily on private funding.
The program impressed President Obama, who in 2010 created the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative. It invited other communities to devise their own solutions to persistent poverty and low educational attainment. Those with the best ideas would be funded.
Competition for grants was intense: 339 applications were submitted, but only 21 communities were selected.
The application from Athens focused on interventions in neighborhoods sending children to Alps Road Elementary. At that school, 76 percent of students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, considered a measure of poverty. In the entire school district, 79 percent of students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.
Last year, Whatever it Takes Athens was awarded a $500,000 planning grant to determine what it would take to help children be successful from infancy to young adulthood.
The area chosen for the pilot project could hardly be more diverse. It has three housing projects, including Pauldoe, two strip clubs and a police station closed by budget cuts. But it also includes a full-service Kroger grocery store, , the Beechwood Shopping Center, and the middle to upper-class Beechwood Hills neighborhood.
“I think it is helpful to have all the different backgrounds because they represent our community,” said Terris Thomas, resident engagement facilitator for the project.
“Schools alone can’t do it all,” said Gilbertson.
Because of this, Whatever It Takes focuses on mobilizing neighborhoods. The idea is to have local residents decide what goals are important, and then to work with service providers to figure out how existing services and supports can be used effectively.
In its proposal, the organizers of Whatever It Takes promised the project would have high levels of parent and community engagement and that residents would have a say in everything.
So far, these promises have been easier said than done.
Sonya Freeman represents the Pauldoe neighborhood as a resident leader with Whatever It Takes. She also serves as the president of the Jack R. Wells Resident Association.
Freeman didn’t always view Whatever It Takes favorably.
“At first, I was like, I do not want you back in my community no more because I felt like you disrespected us,” said Freeman, remembering her initial meeting with Whatever It Takes representatives.
Residents felt excluded from the planning process, according to Freeman.
“They thought they were in a community without a lot of intelligent people, and quickly they found out they were wrong,” said Freeman. “Before they came in here, we were already doing whatever it takes for our kids.”
The organization reorganized and reached out to neighborhoods again and have now “started listening,” said Freeman.
Currently, Whatever it Takes is hosting focus groups to learn what local people think should be done.
In addition to parents and students, other community members such as pastors, bus drivers and public health officials are invited to come and participate in monthly community conversations.
During a round of discussions in March, people repeatedly mentioned two issues: a shortage of safe play spaces for children and low levels of parental involvement in schools.
Freeman says she allows her children to play in her front yard, but adds, “we need speed bumps because cars are always flying and they aren’t really paying attention that kids are out here.”
Apathy is an even bigger challenge.
“At my last meeting I had nobody,” said Tara Davenport, a resident leader with Whatever It Takes, who invited neighbors to a meeting in her living room.
“I’m running around trying to find people for my meeting. So I started knocking on strangers’ doors,” said Davenport. ”Whatever It Takes, to me, is seeing what’s going on with my child.”
Freeman also says that she’s motivated to come to meetings because of her concern about the welfare of children, her own and her neighbors’ children. “I would rather them be in a position where they are able to go outside and they are safe. If I can help that happen for my kids or anybody else’s kids, why not?”
Children are the driving force for most people involved with the planning effort.
President Obama has proposed an additional $10 million dollars to implement local plans, but Congress would need to authorize the appropriation.
Additional funding or not, Whatever It Takes representatives say they will continue their efforts. Whatever It Takes doesn’t actually provide services. Instead, they direct families towards available existing resources and engage community partners to provide additional services as needed.
“The funding is not why we’re doing the work,” said Thomas, whose job is to bring neighbors into Whatever It Takes.
The bottom line is helping children have better futures.
“For those families who have all the odds against them, we want to know what does it take for them to succeed,” said Gilbertson, the Whatever it Takes Coordinator.