The Blue Mountain Action Council turned 50 last year and is still going strong into its second half century. The organization was founded in 1966 as a result of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and the resulting national anti-poverty legislation.
“We are one of 35 community action partnership agencies in the state,” said Kathy Covey, chief executive officer.
A tremendous amount of concern, work and money has gone into fighting the battles, and the war rages on.
“We have certainly not won it,” Covey said. “And certain decades were much more difficult.”
Covey has been in this position for three years but with the agency since 1978, with a brief break in 1988.
“BMAC has a 15-member board, a third of the board members are from the public sector, a third from the private sector and a third from the target sector representing the people we serve,” she said.
“We are governed independently by our board. It gets funding from federal, state and local governments but it is not a government entity itself.”
BMAC has six basic programs to provide assistance to those in distress:
Housing Services, made up of finding safe housing, repair, weatherization and lead removal.
Employment training and Education
Legal and Ombudsman
Commitment to Community
One program the local organization has had from the beginning is the low-income energy-assistance program. Community Action agencies have some latitude in choice of programs applicable to their specific area.
“We have job training here, no Head Start,” Covey said.
BMAC receives foundational funding from block grants.
“We manage 40 different sources of funding for different services,” she said. For example, “The VA grants us $900,000 a year to take care of 250 families.”
BMAC has 52 staff members, and the number of volunteers varies by the program. Covey said the food bank has 20-25 volunteers. The Ombudsman program’s coordinator is based in Pasco; that program has upward of 15 volunteers who attend to the residents in area long-term-care facilities.
The Adult Literacy program has 30 volunteers teaching about 35 students to help get a GED, or other types of educational assistance.
Affordable housing in the area has become a huge concern, Covey said. BMAC owns a number of properties where the apartment complexes have a case manager on staff. Some complexes provide permanent supportive housing.
“We focus on the quality of life in our units. We keep them safe and warm,” she said.
BMAC helps those coming from homelessness transition into permanent housing.
Another local project is Lincoln Terrace, a teen center currently under construction.
The need for help is ongoing and often requires time and effort to find solutions.
“Most of the situations clients face are not just one-shot things ... housing is especially crucial,” Covey said. “We work with clients living in cars and in shelters. We have support services for vets; job training may take two and a half years.”
Immediate needs for energy assistance, food or ombudsman mediation may be a one-time request for help.
BMAC is seen as a hub of social services, with a variety to offer as well as the ability to help clients apply for food stamps at the office visit. Helpline is located in the same building, and clients can easily stop in there for assistance if necessary.
Situations can arise where someone needs help but they are outside the specific regulations that come with receiving government funds. When BMAC can’t provide what they need, the client is referred to SonBridge or elsewhere for assistance.
Dealing with a difficult housing situation is often complicated, but BMAC works with others in the community to find solutions.
“We are really good partners; we have a really strong partnership with the housing authority,” Covey said.
The organization also has direct contact with housing through its partnerships and actual property ownership.
“Walla Walla Community College has provided some land and funding for building a home in the Edith-Carrie neighborhood. And we just sold two lots to Habitat for Humanity,” Covey said. “With housing, our first priority is to keep the people in the home; many families are just one paycheck away from homelessness.”
Maintenance, basic repairs and those types of things also may fall by the wayside when the focus is just keeping the family in the home in the first place. BMAC also helps address repairs and emergencies while looking at the overall affordable housing problem in the community.
Covey said BMAC helps families, one by one. It may seem like there are more homeless, but, she said, “I think we are doing better in counting the numbers of homeless. What’s different is the face of homelessness. Ten to 12 years ago it most often was a single male; now we see families. We’re in need of a women’s shelter”
“Often we see a woman and a child living in a car, they don’t feel safe in the tent encampment.”
BMAC offers a clinic on bankruptcy and a quarterly Money Smart class on financial literacy, which has included a stipend given by Banner Bank for those attending.
BMAC’s home in the county-owned Kelly Place complex is solid for now, according to Covey. But the agency always needs volunteers, especially for the Ombudsman program and with food assistance.
If the economy can slowly grow and people can keep their jobs, Covey is very optimistic about the future. She is also looking forward to having the newly built Teen Center up and running this year.
The staff is always working with people in distress, dealing with sad events and trying to help. It’s a challenge all the way around.
“When we can help, it’s amazing,” she said.
Covey has seen young men leave gangs, get their tattoos removed and get jobs.
“They move right into a life that has more hope,” she said. “Doors are opened. I’ve never been doom and gloom, I see plenty of opportunities.”