By Jessica Lyons
Life Skills Training and Educational Programs, also called LifeSTEPS, works to create stronger communities and families by providing services that directly meet the needs expressed by those they serve. Study.com recently spoke with the organization's executive director, Beth Southorn, to find out more about the mission of Life Skills Training and Educational Programs.
Study.com: Tell us about the creation of Life Skills Training and Educational Programs and its mission.
Beth Southorn: In 1996, we achieved our 501C3 with a couple of powerful visionaries. One was a developer, the other was an ex-lawyer-turned-therapist. They talked about building affordable housing communities and the need for having services within those communities.
About five years later, when I came on, they had about eight communities that they provided social services to, like after-school programs and social workers, to try to catch people before they fell. I received five buildings as kind of a 'go do your social service' thing. At that time, we didn't have Obama's book on community development, so we literally had to learn from the clients - the residents that we served - what was missing in their lives and what it was we could do to intercede so that people who were poor could stay in housing rather than have something detrimental like homelessness happen to them.
That was the beginning of Life Skills Training and Educational Programs. In 2012, we're the largest provider of social services in the state of California and, I believe, throughout the nation. We've served over 22,000 homes and help about 70,000 residents.
E-P: What areas do you work in specifically?
BS: Throughout California. We provide services to San Diego, Los Angeles, the desert, Fresno, the South Bay Area, the East Bay Area, Santa Rosa and Sacramento.
E-P: Can you tell us a little bit more about who exactly you're serving and the sort of impact these services are able to have on these individuals?
BS: That's my favorite subject. It's the working poor that we service, typically. Some of them are struggling to find employment. Some of them have multiple kids in single-parent households, and their moms - or dads for that matter - are just one paycheck away from not having any resources to maintain housing. It's not because they're not working hard. This is actually your Starbucks worker, you know? It's your entry-level individual that's doing hard maintenance work. Some individuals have had businesses before.
As an example, I have a woman who owned her own beautician business and house. As she got older she contracted a pretty severe case of arthritis and lost her ability to work with her hands, so she ended up in affordable housing doing maintenance, recreating herself and going to college. Life Skills Training and Educational Programs is actually paying for her college so she can get a degree and become a law enforcement support person.
E-P: What different services does Life Skills Training and Educational Programs provide?
BS: We help residents with access to things like education, health and nutrition, parenting classes, financial skills, computer classes and job-seeking skills. We have about a year and a half worth of curriculum that changes every three months to meet the majority needs of the working poor. In addition to those educational components, we also have social workers who are trained to be there during a crisis, which could be somebody losing their job, having kids struggle with school, domestic violence - whatever the need is. We tell residents to give us a call about whatever keeps them up at night.
We have client assistance funds, we have rental assistance funds, we have emergency funds. We also do things where we write grants for people's individual stories and pay for things like mobility chairs, dental work and therapy for kids. Whatever the issue is, we try to meet the needs of our community through fundraising. At Life Skills Training and Educational Programs, we're there to catch people when they fall so that we can alter the way they continue to live.
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E-P: Can you tell us about the education programs you provide for children and adults? Why do you think it's important to include educational programs for people of all ages?
BS: Besides financial planning classes, we have curriculum-based after school programming. We have about 88 after-school programs throughout the state. Senior education is a totally different curriculum and another massive program that we have in our agency. Oftentimes, we're working with seniors who are now isolated because nobody's able to really talk to them. If you teach them how to use computers, they can send all sorts of e-mail to their family members and have dialogue in a way that the family members are used to. It can happen frequently and minimize isolation. Also, sometimes in our senior properties we learn that that particular generation is underutilizing services that they need, so educating them about what's available is important. The education is where it's at. I can't do anything without educating.
E-P: Can you tell us a little about the school supply drive you're having and what your goals for that are?
BS: The school supply drive is us raising awareness for kids who are poor and don't typically get a chance to go out with all-new school clothes, pencils and paper. It impacts their self-esteem and their ability to feel included. They have a tremendous amount of shame. The drive is for us to fundraise for them so when they walk in the classroom they're just like everybody else in the class. That normalcy allows them to have the expectation that they should be producing normal work. When you feel equal, when you believe in yourself, you're in the game.
E-P: What do you find to be the most rewarding part of the work you do?
BS: I would say it's the fact that we're actually getting somewhere. I've been in social services for 25 years and I never felt like we could ever actually change the cycle until Life Skills for Training and Educational Programs. We see the change first-hand. The residents who live with us tend to be a lot more stable. We have ongoing relationships with our clients. It is the most meaningful work I could ever imagine doing.
E-P: What are your future goals for Life Skills Training and Educational Programs?
BS: To continue to impact more and more lives. We can't save enough. We have a committed team that wants to grow and expand and meet the needs of all the people we possibly can. In the climate that's happening now, more non-profits are shutting down, less resources are available and more benefits are being cut. Those are all going to impact the working poor. We have to catch them before they fall. The more I can catch, the more we're able to change the world.
Study.com has made a donation to help Life Skills Training and Educational Programs fulfill its mission. Find out how you can help this organization by visiting its website.
Communities are also being improved by Girls Inc. of Metro Denver, which does so by empowering girls.