Community service program for public housing residents 'designed to enrich their lives by helping others'

Posted: Aug. 24, 2013 8:26 pm Updated: Sep. 15, 2013 12:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

BARRY, Ill. -- Some people may not believe in giving back to the community, but not Debra Gouran.

"You help the community and the community will help you," Gouran said.

She volunteers on the Pleasant Hill Fire Department, the department's women's auxiliary and the city's Fourth of July committee.

"I wanted something to fill up my time, then I fell in love with it," she said. "I get to meet and help people."

Besides enjoying the volunteer work, Gouran also meets a requirement for living in a Pike County Housing Authority unit in Pleasant Hill.

The federal Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 requires all non-exempt public housing adult residents to contribute eight hours per month of community service volunteer work, participate in eight hours of training, counseling, classes or other activities toward self-sufficiency and economic independence or combine the two as a requirement of the lease.

Exempt from the requirement are residents 62 years of age or older, blind or disabled, working at least 30 hours per week, meeting requirements under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or any other state welfare programs, or is a member of a family receiving TANF or other state welfare programs.

"We had never really enforced it here, which was a problem," said Chris Bruns, executive director of the Pike County Housing Authority.

Correcting the oversight that was noticed during a visit by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was a top priority for Bruns after he took the job nearly two years ago.

PCHA has 228 units, with about 76 supposed to be doing community service or self-sufficiency activities. Bruns said about 15 people are doing primarily community service work.

"One thing we are running into is that since people have never had to do this before, it's an uphill climb in getting them to understand what the program is," Bruns said. "It's also been difficult to explain to some that it is not a punishment but a part of the public housing program designed to enrich their lives by helping others."

Bruns said one resident broke down in tears when told she had to do this.

"She's always thought of community service as a punishment by the courts for wrongdoing," Bruns said. "After speaking with the person, she told me some of the things she does, and little did she know she already was meeting the community service requirement. All she needed to do was log the time and submit it to the office."

PCHA reached out to Barry officials to find some community service options for residents. Perry and Pittsfield have agreed to participate, and the authority also has approached officials in Baylis, Griggsville, New Canton and Pleasant Hill.

"You have to contact people who might be willing to have volunteers in their organization, and also you have to connect with residents and let them be aware of it," PCHA Board President Carole Bradshaw said. "Once you get the ball rolling and organizations that have used them and also some residents have gone in, it just naturally snowballs."

A variety of volunteer work qualifies under the program. Gouran's work as the village's only female firefighter qualifies, and so does helping to plan the annual July 4 celebration.

Volunteering "has made me a better person, just being out there helping people in their time of need," she said.

Barry Mayor Shawn Rennecker said the volunteers are helpful to the city.

"We have limited staff," Rennecker said. "It's great to have them take care of low-impact stuff, pick up some trash, help with painting. It's not back-breaking, but it helps us out."

Rennecker said there's other choices, like the Barry Food Pantry, for people who prefer inside work.

"We always need volunteers to help us repackage and to stock our shelves," said Lillian Bowen with the food pantry. "We get clothing in, household items in. As you know, we redistribute everything. It's just time-consuming."

Bruns said residents also can meet the requirement by doing something for another resident, such as providing childcare while they work or do community service or self-sufficiency training.

Residents who fail to comply risk nonrenewal of their lease.

"Before that would ever happen, there's a significant amount of time for them to be able to catch up," Bruns said. "Say this year, January to December, somebody doesn't do community service at all. They've got all of next year to get caught up. It's not you didn't do it this month, you're out."





Community service includes:
• Work at a local institution such as a school, child care center, hospital, recreation center or food pantry.
• Work with a nonprofit organization.
• Work at the housing authority to help with litter control, children's programs or senior programs.
• Helping neighborhood groups with special projects.
• Working with a resident organization or advisory board.
• Caring for children of other residents so they may volunteer.
Self-sufficiency activities include:
• Job readiness or training programs
• GED classes.
• Substance abuse or mental health counseling.
• Apprenticeships.
• Budgeting and credit counseling.
• Student status at any school, college or vocational school.

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