Celebrating 50 years of service

By Melanie Ruberti

July 7, 2014

When 50 year old Michael Chapman decided to start over again, he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

The former war veteran went back to school and through the Troup County job training program graduating this past April with a specialty in Electronics and Computers. But finding a full time job hasn’t been easy. And last month, low on cash and resources Chapman was referred to the Community Action for Improvement (CAFI) agency. The organization paid his utilities, a tank of gas so he could get to his part time job, and more importantly for him, paid the balance of his apartment rent.

“I would have been evicted,” said Chapman. “The process was started. The landlord sent me a letter telling me to move out.”

Chapman is just one of the thousands of people CAFI helps on a yearly basis over five regional counties, including Troup County. In the last fiscal year alone, CAFI paid the utility bills of more than 5,500 clients who were eligible for their Low Income Home Energy Assistance program to the tune of two million dollars.

“A new day, a new way,” said CAFI Executive Director, Edna Foster. “We want to be a one stop shop for a person’s resources and needs. And if we can’t, we can assist finding resources for them.”

Indeed, the agency has multiple programs to help those down on their luck. The multifaceted agency helps repair and insulate homes through it’s Weatherization program; offers 1,100 children early educational enrollment with it’s Headstart program, hands out boxes of food through a collaboration with area foodbanks called Feeding the Community, and offers financial assistance through social services. But Foster said clients shouldn’t walk in expecting a hand out. CAFI’s mission is to remove barriers so people can become self-sufficient.

“We help people to help themselves,” she said. “We ask clients first, ‘OK, how much are you going to be able to pay out?’ They calculate the payment and we’ll try to match it.”

“We have people that come through our doors we refer to other services,” Foster added. “Everyone who comes through our door, even if we don’t help them financially, our goal is to have them leave better than when they came in.”

And the need continues to grow, while the funding does not.

“We see more of the working poor,” Foster said. “The rent has gone up, food has gone up, but their paychecks have not.”

CAFI is a nonprofit agency that relies on federal funding, grants, donations, and fundraising. Foster said the group lost almost $100,000 due to federal cuts this fiscal year.

Randy Cash is the Director of CAFI’s Weatherization program. He said over the last four years, the agency repaired more than 1,100 homes spending about $1.5 million per year. This fiscal year, Cash’s allocation is only $462,000.

“We’re trying to reach as many homes as we can, doing about six or eight per month,” Cash said. “We’re still waiting on more funding. We may only get to 60 or 70 families this year, if we’re lucky.”

“We’re still in the planning period, to see how many funds we need to raise and see how many customers we may need to shift and who has the most need,” Foster said. “We may have to send them to other sources and partnerships and only pay a portion of their bills.”

Foster has only been in the Executive Director position since December. But she’s already brainstorming with fellow board members on how to raise more funds for the agency.

“We made a big change,” said CAFI Board Member Frank Walls. “It was time for a change and we made a good one.”

Despite the budget cuts, Foster hopes more people will use CAFI’s services. As she put it, they don’t want to be “the best kept secret in town.”

Michael Chapman knows first hand how they helped him, and what they can do for the entire community.

“I would highly recommend Community Action to anyone who needs assistance,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize they can help you get back on your feet.”