Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Bright Futures Coordinator: This is why we pay rent and utilities

Since the Turner Report was the first news source to reveal that Bright Futures Joplin has been paying rent and utilities for families, it seems only fair to allow the coordinator of the local organization, Melissa Winston, to respond to those who have criticized that practice. She explained it in this message, which was posted on the Bright Futures Joplin website:

Coordinator's Report: Standing in the Gap for Kids 
Some pieces of the work of Bright Futures Joplin are simple - shoes, coats, school supplies for a student without them? Easy answer. But sometimes the work becomes more complex. Recently we've had some questions about why we would ever get involved in helping with things like rent or utilities when other agencies do this work as well. It's a valid and important question, and I thought I'd share a real-life story that happened just this week that might shed some light on why.

Sadie* was new to the school, trying to 
make  friends and fit in.  Her fourth
school since kindergarten, this sweet second grader was struggling. As the counselor dug into the situation attempting to help, it was realized that there were lots of things going on at home. Mom was sick, and she wasn't going to get better. Dad was doing everything he could, but it just wasn't enough. No other family to help, young parents ill-prepared for a lifelong debilitation left this little girl forced to start over every few months as the family faced eviction yet again. 

Together, the principal and counselor worked with the family to make some connections that could really help them. As all area resources were explored, there was still one problem - the rent was two months past due, and no local agencies could help. When BF received the call, the eviction notice had already come, and the family was preparing to move their sweet girl to yet another school. As the team and I began to talk about the situation and explore possibilities, one thing was clear: what was best for Sadie was to stay put in this school, and to do that mom and dad needed some help. Together with a local case manager, we were able make a long-term plan that was sustainable. Thanks to the generosity of donors and supporters of this critical work, Bright Futures Joplin was able to write a check for one-time assistance to cover the back rent. It wasn't a "hand out;" it was a "hand UP."

While there are many amazing churches and agencies serving our families in Joplin, gaps still exist. Our school personnel see heartbreaking stories every single day. Sadie is not an anomaly; she is everywhere. In a perfect world, we'd all have a large enough savings account, an insurance policy, and a network of support to catch us when these seasons come...but that's not the case for everyone.

In Joplin we've decided that we're not okay with leaving our kids' destinies up to chance or letting them fall through the cracks when there's 
something we can do about it. Even though these
situations are more complex, we are willing to make investments - sometimes big ones - in the lives of our most vulnerable kids with the hope that the return will one day be a new generation that's stronger, smarter, and healthier because they grew up knowing they were not alone - that their community cared when it mattered most! Our hope is that these investments give them a chance...because education is the ticket to a better life! Doing the right thing isn't always popular or simple, but it's still right...and that's what we're going to do.

Will you join us? 

Click here to find out how.

Serving together,
Melissa Winston, MSMFT, PLMFT
Bright Futures Joplin Coordinator

*The name of the student has been changed to protect her identity.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

While Sadie's name has been changed to protect her identity, what about her picture? I have to assume that the girl pictured really isn't "Sadie," but it doesn't say that.

Melissa Winston said...

Thank you for publishing this, Randy! I welcome any questions in my office at any time. And yes - that picture is a stock photo, not "Sadie." You can reach me at melissawinston@joplinschools.org or on phone at 417-625-5200, ext. 2229.

Anonymous said...

Update your resume, Winston. Your free lunch is about over.

Anonymous said...

Please show respect. I do not know Mrs. Winston, but Joplin Bright Futures does fight for the kids. You might not agree with it, but look at their hearts. It is easy to be rude under Anonymous.

Melissa Winston said...

I am not, in any way, threatened by those that disagree with the work that Bright Futures Joplin does or that hold me personally in contempt when they don't even know me. I believe that those that want the truth will seek it out. Those that want to stir the pot and revel in the drama will do so no matter what I say or do. I welcome their thoughts and invite all of them to the table for conversation, but I will not play the social media game of "hating" everyone and everything that doesn't align perfectly with my own thoughts. I believe intelligent, authentic adults will sit down together and reason. If at the end they disagree, so be it. I have friendships with many people with whom I disagree as I am not remotely threatened by that. I personally believe that anyone who is so threatened by our differences that they must spew hate does so from a place of fear and insecurity...I find it saddening for their sake, as I cannot imagine living like that. So, say whatever you want 11:12 - or anyone else. I'd love to buy you coffee and hear it from you directly, in fact. My identity and purpose are not defined by any individual.

What I can tell you for certain is that my personal mission is not, in the least, for political gain or for money or power. My heart is for healthy families in Joplin - our state - our country - our world, and I work very hard to that end. I've never had a "free ride" and would never expect one. My "resume" and work speaks for itself - not because I'm perfect or have all the answers, but because I can put my head on my pillow every single night knowing that I'm doing the right things for the right reasons to the very best of my ability. So I have no fear of what's next for me. I'm pretty sure there's a long-standing precedent that often those who do the right thing will get crucified for it. If that's the case, then so be it. But I will do the right thing for the right reasons with every ounce of my being until my dying breath. I will make mistakes, and when I do I will own them and learn from them. That is who I am.

Bring on the questions! But if you feel so led to spew hate, I will not be joining you in that mud pit.

Anonymous said...

Is it true your organization hired temporary secretarial assistance to change some account codes within the last six months or so?

Be honest.

Anonymous said...

Are you answering these posts during your work hours?

Do you have any internet guidelines?

Anonymous said...

Using taxpayer dollars and donations to pay utilities. Me thinks there is more to this story. Dad doing all he can, yet having to move every few months? What's the rest of the story? Addiction? Mom sick and will never get better. Why wasn't she getting disability? School organizations have no business using these funds for rent or utilities.

Melissa Winston said...

I will answer any honest question as long as we don't get into the weeds of mud slinging, so thank you for asking.

3:48 - No. That is not true. We have a VISTA through the national AmeriCorps VISTA program who is helping us with the donation center (growing our volunteer base, implementing inventory procedures that the State Auditor asked us to implement, and growing our donation base for long-term sustainability). She has nothing to do with the finances whatsoever. We did change how we track our finances about 14 months ago (July 2014). We moved from a QuickBooks system that was not set up as a regular non-profit budget. It was established to track donations after the tornado, so accounts were defined by the donor and their intention for it's use. Since we are out of that business, we have now moved to a Xero accounting system (which is a cheaper, simpler online finance program that allows us to track and report our money more simply with the oversight of the District Finance Department, who are heavily involved). What most people don't realize is that because we are a line item in the school budget, we aren't able to pull reports like a typical non-profit through the District's finance system. We can pull income/expenses, but not broken down by categories, etc. The Xero system allows us to do that. When we moved to that new system, we hired an accountant to help us set it up. We developed all new account codes in Xero based on a typical non-profit accounting system. This allows us to see income/expenses by program, event, budget line, etc. So...in that regard, we did change the account codes. But, the school District account codes remain the same. I reconcile our Xero account with the finance records every month and report all of that back to the Bright Futures advisory board. The District account is like one checking account (figuratively), while Xero breaks that account down into "envelopes," if you will. But nobody paid anyone to do anything illegal. The goal was actually to be more accountable and more transparent, which is what we have done.

3:49 - I did answer some of those questions during work hours. We do have internet guidelines, but we are more than allowed to utilize social media and other online outlets when the work pertains to our job. In this case, it obviously does, so no policies were broken.

4:20 - We are not using taxpayer donations to pay utility bills. All of the money used by Bright Futures Joplin are monies that were given by donors specifically for the purposes of Bright Futures Joplin. We don't receive funds from the Joplin Schools' taxpayer-funded budget. We have an "activity account" in the District budget, but the District doesn't put any money in it. Any money we have was donated to Bright Futures Joplin. And to speak to your questions about the situation...I really can't get into too many more details with you for the sake of protecting the family's identity. If it were your family, I'd protect your identity as well. What I can tell you is that mom has applied for disability, but as you likely know, nearly everyone gets denied at first. She has appealed and is awaiting her case to be heard with the judge. There is often a year to two year wait before people are approved for disability. At that time, they usually get a settlement of back pay for that season of lost work, but just imagine for a minute if you lost a year or two of income. This mom needed round the clock care, but had no health insurance to access it...dad was trying to swing working a job while caring for his wife. That would be challenging to say the least.

Anonymous said...

The paying of rent, utilities, and even car payments utliizing donated dollars happen all the time in our community. These things should come with proper case management and regular follow up. Things happen to good people all the time. I am sure Randy can, and should, reach out to Watered Gardens and get up to date data on the amount of assistance groups document in Charity Tracker each year. Some groups like Catholic Charities, Sal Army, and a few others do not even report to Charity Tracker. I have no issue with the help being provided. I would like to see BF and other groups keep overhead under 10%.

Anonymous said...

Good quality case management is an absolute necessity when assisting families with crisis needs. The case manager is the one to stay connected to the family while the situation becomes stable, ensuring long- term resources are offered and supporting the family as they gain self-sufficiency. This is one of the big problems with the Joplin BF model---they do NOT do case management--rarely do they directly interact with the family in need. For a different model check out Webb City----they have a school based social service worker who is interacting with students and families frequently, and Webb City CARES (Formerly Webb City BF) is merely a means to assist when a family crisis occurs. This model is about building relationships first ---maybe Joplin Schools could learn something from this model.

Melissa Winston said...

4:31 - I absolutely agree with you. It is the biggest weakness of our system and one I'm working to correct. We used to have Project Hope, but with all but two of those folks gone, we are struggling. The problem is that Joplin is twice the size of Webb with much more poverty and a totally different culture. I am working HARD to fix this, though. I'm with you!

Anonymous said...

There are probably a number of Turner Report readers who would like to see a few cultural changes in Joplin.

This could start with recognizing that finding more turd polishers is not a solution, it is one of the problems.

Anonymous said...

I think this open dialogue is awesome. It informs everyone which helps in many ways including keeping the "haters" in their holes, informs us of what BF actually does in case we might want to donate or volunteer at some point. I can tell you, with Huffy being part of BF, it does concern me (but who am I to care). So keep up the attempt to keep the lines of communication open!!

Anonymous said...

Melissa, while you're here answering questions, can you talk about the fundraising for OCB? Can you clear up if BF takes a cut of the apple sales, is the money put into a big pot and divided among all schools, why does that fundraising have to filter through your organization?

Anonymous said...

Bright Futures has been and will always be associated with Joplin Schools. Randy is correct that they advertise as a way to promote increased graduation rates with no data to support the claim. Is helpking kids and families the right thing to do absolutely. The association of Joplin schools and BF due to the Joplin Superintendant starting the program and giving free rent and resources to Bright Futures crossed the line. People inside Joplin schools know graduation rates went up because teachers were not allowed to refer, let alone flunk students. The students who did credit recovery a couple hours on the weekend graduated same as kids who went 8-3 everyday. The Joplin school system needs to focus on education, there is no room in the budget for bright futures. Fortunately good people can and will continue to help real kids not just ones BF makes up. This false advertisement of a made up child should serve as a symbol that if Bright Futures is a story its found in the fiction section of your local library.

Melissa Winston said...

12:05 - My office door has and will continue to always be open. Please continue to communicate - that's my goal! Dr. Huff is doing contract work for BFUSA to raise funds and spread the message about the model. He's not doing anything with us. And while there are many that have villainized him for various perceived missteps (not getting into that debate), I have worked very closely with him and seen his heart and intention. He's done a lot of good and is a very talented man. Perception is NOT always reality, plain and simple. I think this role with BFUSA is a good one for them because he has the exact skill set that they need. The best quote I've heard of Dr. Huff was this, "He was hired for his strengths, not his weaknesses. Every leader has weaknesses, and certainly Dr. Huff had them as well. We can spend all our time pointing fingers at his weaknesses, or we can be thankful that he brought his strengths to the table for our benefit." I, for one, refuse to villainize him or ANYONE, as I've seen the hard work and know how incredibly difficult it is to get things done in a complex and large school system (not to mention one that's just had one of the largest disasters of all time). With that said, I am grateful for Dr. Ridder's leadership and wisdom - he's the right man for the job at this time, and we're all learning a lot! My role is to be a part of making the system better, and that is certainly what I & the Bright Futures team are trying to do.

12:46 - Great question. No, Bright Futures does not take a cut of the apples. The reason for it running through us is simply logistics. It's easier for the Candy House to have once central point person, rather than 11. It's easier to cut one check to them, rather than 11. All the money comes into the BF account. I cut a check to the Candy House, and then each school gets their portion of the profits. I keep $0.

Melissa Winston said...

12:59 - I do not and will not take credit for all of the success that Joplin Schools has had with graduation rates. Are we a piece of a big puzzle that has helped? Yes. Have we done things that are valuable to the system and helped kids? Yes. But the credit is not all ours - there are thousands of people who have worked VERY hard to make a difference for kids, and they all should receive the applause! I will tell you that we do have five years of data to show the impact of Bright Futures, but we have to have time to process and extract it all to show the real outcomes. We're working on that and will report it out once we have it in hand. But to your point...I realize that there are different philosophies about education and how it should be done (I've learned a lot about that in the last two years!). What I fear is that there are some people who don't have a holistic understanding of the WHY. It's not just about passing kids and letting them go on through even if they didn't do the work. In fact, that's not what should be happening at all! People need to have a solid understanding of a) mental health, b) research on brain development and the impact of poverty and trauma on educational outcomes, and c) a willingness to make systemic changes to help those at-risk kids have the supports they need to overcome. An authoritarian/disciplinarian approach with those at-risk kids does not work. It breeds bigger and more problems and continues the generational poverty cycle when those kids don't graduate. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, than education has been (for many years) very guilty of not changing it's approach towards at-risk kids and families. What is being done now, though not agreed upon by all, are evidence-based practices that are proven to make a difference in some of the lowest performing schools in the country with the highest percentages of at-risk kids. Do we have plenty of room to get better? YOU BET. But it takes a lot of time and effort to turn around a big ship. What bothers me in Joplin is that people have their minds so made up that they aren't willing to come to the table with an openness to listening. I have been guilty of that in the past, but no more. We are BETTER TOGETHER, and it's time for the people of Joplin to stop firing arrows and start coming to the table with solutions and a willingness to listen and learn. But I can promise I have never "made up" a child or a story, nor will I ever. I will not play the hate mongering game that has been a part of the Joplin culture for the last year. You can spend all your time placing blame, or you can spend your time finding solutions. I, for one, choose to work for solutions. The invitation is open to all who are willing to listen, learn, and grow together to join in.

Anonymous said...

I am very hopeful BF will not receive any more funding from the state.

It simply is not needed.

Thank you.