DEBBIE KELLEY • Updated: December 6, 2008 at 12:00 am • Published: December 6, 2008
A local Christian nonprofit born a decade ago out of fears over welfare reform has matured into a model program that 40 cities and one country are duplicating.
A coalition of 34 evangelical and mainline Christian churches formed Faith Partners in 1998 on the heels of the federal Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Among other mandates, the act set time limits on receiving public assistance and required job training.
"The bill had no safety net, and we were afraid people would be cut off from the system and turn to the churches. We thought we'd experience an onslaught that we couldn't sustain," Jackie Jaramillo said Thursday in a presentation to El Paso County commissioners. Jaramillo was on the original steering committee that created Faith Partners to accommodate the anticipated demand, and has been the organization's executive director since its inception.
Under a provision called "Charitable Choice" that was part of the Clinton administration's welfare reform law, the door was opened for religious organizations to work with departments of human services to help clients transition from welfare to work.
Faith Partners was one of the first five programs in the nation formed under the Charitable Choice provision; today it is the only one that remains of the initial five, Jaramillo said.
The local model has been so successful in helping generationally poor welfare recipients move away from public assistance that 40 other cities are building their programs around a 200-page organizational handbook that Faith Partners generated.
The program made Bill Moyers' PBS show in 2003; this year it got the attention of the European Union. Slovakian officials came to Colorado Springs to study the program, and Jaramillo will travel to Slovakia in April to help the country implement the Faith Partners system.
Participation in Faith Partners is voluntary, said Barbara Drake, director of the El Paso County Department of Human Services, and is based on the belief that providing education and building relationships with welfare clients breaks the cycle of poverty by enabling people to explore their options, set goals and achieve them.
A mentoring component relies on teams of volunteers from churches, who walk hand-in-hand with welfare clients as role models and friends. Since 1998, about 450 families have been mentored using 2,200 volunteers, Jaramillo said. The program claims an 87 percent success rate.
"One of the things I've learned is when people are in healthy relationships, they thrive," said volunteer mentor Delrece Moore.
Instead of approaching welfare as merely a program to distribute checks, the tactic at Faith Partners is to help welfare recipients review their decisions and figure out how they can create a different life and gain economic security, Drake said.
"Poverty's not just about not having money. Real reform brings about self awareness and responsibility to take steps to change," she added.
Faith Partners gets $149,000 of its $225,000 annual budget from the El Paso County Department of Human Services.
The remainder comes from individual and church donations and grants. Jaramillo said she's applied for federal funding over the years but has been denied because the population of Colorado Springs is too small for her program to qualify.
In addition to providing mentoring, Faith Partners also administers a foster care adoption program that serves 75 children and has 15 foster parents; life skills classes for teens; a job-readiness program that has served 600 clients in the last two years; an abstinence curriculum; volunteer opportunities; and a marriage initiative to reduce the divorce rate, a large contributor to poverty.
Jaramillo said 160 local pastors have signed an agreement to not perform ceremonies unless couples take premarital counseling.
"Welfare reform impacted not only the people in the system but also the system itself. The system used to be benefits-driven. It's now investment-driven - we invest in human capital," she said.