The local not-for-profit JCEO has a straightforward mission: to alleviate poverty through practical, timely and innovative services that emphasize and develop problem solving skills in people. Officially known as the Joint Council for Economic Opportunity of Clinton and Franklin Counties, Inc., the organization’s roots date back to 1964 and President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Initially, the idea was to deliver federal funds to community groups led by people who benefitted from the various programs. At the time, the poverty rate in America was about 19 percent. Measurements at the end of 2019 indicated the rate was near 12 percent.
WHAT ARE THE BASIC TYPES OF ASSISTANCE JCEO OFFERS?
Its signature program, Head Start, is designed to prepare three to five-year olds from low income families for school and to support their social and emotional development. About one million children nation-wide participate in the program each year and there is a strong emphasis on involving parents. An Early Head Start program offers prenatal care and general health and dental screening for children from birth to age three.
The local JCEO’s Food Services program covers Clinton, Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties and provides food recovered from local grocery stores and from the nonprofit Feed America. The program has a New York State Department of Health certified kitchen to package produce for sale, and operates two greenhouses and four gardens. In 2018, the program recovered over 120,000 pounds of food, farmed 3,500 pounds of fresh produce at the program site, and distributed another 3,300 pounds of produce through a partnership with Bare Hill Correctional Facility. The food is distributed through 27 food banks throughout the region. During the growing season, the program operates a mobile farmers’ market, a small bus that sells fresh produce and baked goods across northern Franklin County.
The Community Outreach program helps those in need by finding services and assisting with information and referrals. Outreach centers, scattered across Clinton and Franklin Counties offer clients help with applications for SNAP (food stamps), rental assistance and weatherization.
JCEO’s Day Care program assists parents in finding day care options for their children, while its Immigrant Services program offers help to immigrants and refugees through New York State’s New American program.
Energy programs help both homeowners and renters reduce energy costs. Heating systems, insulation, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and LED lightbulbs are some of the types of assistance offered.
Senior Services provides information on assistance programs for those over 60 years old and offers help with health insurance, volunteer drivers and volunteers who visit the homebound elderly.
The arrival of COVID-19 has upended many of these programs but JCEO is adapting. Food pantries are giving out pre-packed bags of food based on family size to minimize person to person contact. In a bit of good news, our area JCEO office received a grant through the Adirondack Foundation to expand food supplies to 27 pantries in Clinton, Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties. Weatherization activities are suspended, although phone referrals continue. Day care referrals are mostly by phone or by appointment if necessary. Senior and immigrant programs are now done by phone. Head Start is closed.
The long-time chief executive officer of JCEO, Bruce Garcia, summed up the organization’s response to the virus. “The management team at JCEO was aware from the beginning that we would be deemed an essential business. With that in mind, we determined that our priority was to provide our services in a manner that insured the health and safety of our employees, volunteers and clients. We made sure that all program directors understood the directions and recommendations of the Center for Disease Control and the New York State Department of Health. To deal with the pandemic we asked our directors to do two things: 1) devise delivery methods that met the recommendations for health and safety and 2) educate their staffs on the importance of following all of the increased safety precautions.”
Garcia joined JCEO in 1996 after working for the equivalent organization in Essex County and became its CEO in 2009. When asked about the post-pandemic delivery of programs, he said,” I am not sure that we will change any of our pre-pandemic delivery models once the crisis is over. We have learned a lot about the technology that is available to us and how to use it efficiently. Some methods of delivery might change a little but JCEO services will always be primarily person to person interactions.”