Pontiac nonprofits find strength through collaboration to boost youth literacy and empower parents

Pontiac is a place where opportunities abound for nonprofits to collaborate, says LaToya Morgan, consultant to the Pontiac Funders Collaborative (PFC). Having identified city-wide goals by engaging with community members from its founding in 2018 through 2020, the PFC provides funding for organizations and local leaders to build capacity to achieve those goals. It supports organizations of any size that are led by or serve people from underrepresented groups, low-income backgrounds, and those lacking access to basic resources.

To strengthen nonprofit partnerships that meet the community’s needs, in 2021, the PFC created a Collaborative Development Grant — its only competitive grant — to fund collaborative projects. E-Community Outreach Services and Center for Success (CFS), two Pontiac nonprofits focused on serving youth and families, were selected in to receive $15,000 to fund their year-long Parent and Literacy program. The most recent eight-week cohort closed with a celebratory family night at Center for Success that included awarding parent certificates as well as reading and literacy games. Both nonprofits are eager to continue working together in the future.

“It’s a learning opportunity for organizations when they collaborate … an opportunity to not only learn from one another, but to also learn about the work [the other is] doing and the work that needs to be done,” Morgan says. “It gives them an opportunity to test new experiences or new ideas…and provides the necessary support to learn to do the necessary work in the community.”

E-Community Outreach Services offers parents the experiential wisdom of its founder and CEO, Eisha Branner. As a woman of color, Branner has confronted personal, financial, and inherent social equity constraints while parenting through difficult socioeconomic conditions. Her nonprofit offers youth programming and mentoring, and uses a case management approach to connect parents in Pontiac with community resources such as workforce training, employment opportunities, emergency food, and housing.

When COVID-19 hit, the organization shifted its programming to a virtual format and met with great success. Since 2020, its weekly, virtual Parents’ Social Hour has been pulling in 35 to 40 families each session. In 2021, Branner opened the Parent Empowerment Center to increase support to those raising families, offering a variety of educational workshops on site, and through community partners like Center for Success.

Parents celebrate the culmination of the Parent and Literacy program at Center for Success. From left to right: Romona Greenlee and Brooke Myers pose with Eisha Branner and parent program coordinator, Kendra Pitts

“Because we were two different organizations, Andrea [Meyer, from CFS] was focusing on youth literacy and I was focused on engaging parents and connecting them with resources,” says Branner. “We got to know each other and see where our challenges were. I remember her saying, ‘We interact with kids, but we don’t interact with their parents.’ And I’m like, ‘We have a lot of families, but we don’t have space or funding.’ So, the first thing she did was offer a space.”

Serving both Pontiac and Detroit, CFS’s literacy program focuses on mentoring elementary and middle school students in after-school sessions that include transportation from partner schools, a nourishing meal, enrichment activities, and one-on-one individualized literacy coaching. The Center also provides virtual and summer literacy programming. In addition to the capacity-building collaboration with E-Community Outreach Services, CFS partners with a dozen other community nonprofits to provide youth with robust programming.

“Eisha and her team are incredibly dedicated,” says Meyer, executive director of CFS. “We worked hard in this program to not only ensure that our families were getting the support they needed, but also that we were thinking very carefully about how our two organizations can enhance their own mission and support each other through this partnership.”

Meyer and Branner created a plan for their parent engagement program through ongoing, informal weekly conversations, before funding was even available. The program, led by Branner, included topics such as balancing life and kids, literary resources, how to advocate for your child, positive behavior and goal setting. Parents of children in CFS’s literacy programs are able to participate, and at the same time, those who get involved through ECommunity Outreach- are encouraged to sign their kids up at Center for Success.
Andrea Meyer and Eisha Branner
“These two ladies had already been working on their collaboration before they sought funding. This is what added value to their efforts,” Morgan says. “It’s also probably why they are having some good success. When the grant came out, they said, ‘Oh, here’s an opportunity for funding,’ [and] were happy it could add value to their work at a point where it was helpful.

Some organizations come together for the funding,” she says. “Those collaborations struggle because you don’t know the who, the what, the why, or the how if you come together strictly to split a larger pot of money.”

The Center for Success Network serves students in Detroit and Pontiac, where schools report a high percentage of students unable to read at grade level — literacy is known to be the foundation of success in other subject areas. By collaborating to create the Parent and Literacy program, CFS extends its mentorship programs into the home, giving families more opportunities to hone their reading skills.

“If what we’re doing with the youth is reinforced and supported at home, it’s always going to provide increased impact,” says Meyer. “Parents know there’s a need, and want their kids to be supported in their literacy goals, but don’t always know how they can play a role. When they start to learn some of the strategies, and network with the other parents and families who are involved, it gives them a greater awareness of ways to create this culture of learning and literacy in the home environment.”Parent and child read together at Parent and Literacy celebration

The Parent and Literacy cohorts began last fall, and met at CFS on Monday evenings over eight consecutive weeks. On Saturdays, parents could opt to take part in workshops led by community experts on housing stability, financial literacy, mental health and education. A brief fitness activity helped keep participants engaged.

“Overall parents felt like they were gaining the knowledge to assist their kids,” says Branner.

“In our community, we have a lot of great programs. We have a lot of great resources. But we also have a disconnect, especially in the last few years with COVID-19,” she says. “There was nowhere near enough support for our families. A lot of their kids have fallen back in school. If you look in our schools, you see a lot of low scores and very little parent involvement.”

Yet, over the past school year, the average attendance for students in CFS’s literacy programs with caregivers enrolled in E-Community Outreach programs was 12% higher than for students whose families were not involved in both programs, she says.

“We’re going to be that group that goes to get those families, that engages with them and connects them with the services and support they need,” she says.

While working toward this goal, Branner and Meyer are also a part of a larger nonprofit cohort, consisting of all the organizations receiving PFC capacity building grants. The dozen grantees meet together each month, and encompass a wide range of community services, everything from health care and family counseling to after-school music programs. Cohort members offer each other lived experience and broader community connections.

“People are able to build relationships across different communities that they may not be connected with, and they can build on those relationships outside of the group,” Morgan says. “Folks really enjoy learning about what one another is doing, and having the opportunity to connect in different ways, or provide opportunities to serve different constituencies.”

Meyer says she hopes that by continuing to engage parents and children together in literacy activities, more parents will turn to E-Community Outreach for access to community resources — and in turn, even more children will become involved, and more consistent, in CFS literacy activities.

“It’s powerful for students and parents to be learning together,” she says, as it instills a “lifelong learning mentality. I’m just really excited about how we’ll continue to work together.”

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting non-leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work–and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.

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