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Building on strengths reduces rural poverty

Combating poverty is never easy, but the WSU Okanogan County Extension’s Horizons Program is making strides to facilitate systemic poverty reduction from the inside out.

Funded by the Northwest Area Foundation, the pilot project offered an 18-month, $352,000 grant for leadership programs and activities to rural communities experiencing demographic changes, as well as income and resource decline.

Horizons serves 36 communities in eight states, utilizing regional partnership clusters of three small towns and a delivery facilitator, such as university extension offices. Representatives then work directly with community members.

In Washington, two clusters were awarded the grant: one in North Central Washington consisting of Omak, Tonasket and Bridgeport, and the other on the Olympic Peninsula comprised of three Native American communities.

Lori Northcott, extension educator at Okanogan County Extension and Horizons Program Community Coach, said the Horizons Program is unique in its approach to fighting poverty. Rather than looking purely at economic deficiencies, the program examines community characteristics, identifies strengths as assets, and then connects community members with education and leadership outlets to build upon those strengths, Northcott said.

“This program is about community engagement, asset-based community development and using those assets to work around poverty reduction,” Northcott said.

Assets in communities can range from economic to cultural to individual. For example, youth were identified as a primary asset in Omak. In response, a program was established to provide goal setting, leadership activities, and traditional academic courses for high school credits. This allowed an opportunity for youth who were at risk for not graduating to earn credits, while also building leadership skills. Helping youth graduate from high school is directly related to income levels.

Population shifts
In recent decades, the need for such intervention has been felt. The economic base in rural Washington has been hard hit with the decline in forestry and agriculture related profits. As a result, population trends are shifting toward urban areas, and small rural communities are facing increased poverty levels.

Community development is about more than just economy, Northcott said. Community development is multilayered, in that the economic base, physical resources, quality of life, and human infrastructure all must be present for a vibrant healthy community. Needs become urgent in places where gaps exist within these layers, Northcott said. Poverty might be evident in these situations in a variety of ways: high teen pregnancy rates, low high school graduation rates, high unemployment, high suicide, and lack of hope.

For nearly 18 months, community members have attended meetings, viewed presentations, listened to speakers, developed leadership skills and talked to other community members in an effort to build local assets. Though impacts are not quantifiable in the short term, each community has witnessed growth in youth engagement, new community partnerships, and political leadership skills, all leading to long-term decreased poverty.

“We’ve taken a multi-faceted approach and now community members are saying ‘wow, it’s really working,’” Northcott said. “We’ve built a capacity for the community to take action themselves.”

Sun setting on project
With the program nearing its curriculum completion in November, community members and Horizon facilitators now are reflecting on current impacts and looking ahead to sustainability.

Doreen Hauser-Lindstrom, extension educator for WSU Extension, said that each community is working on set strategic plans for upholding and continuing growth, as well as continuing leadership education once funding sources and extension coaches are gone. Despite the program end, extension plans to remain involved in aiding communities.

“Extension has made a commitment to help as much as possible within our means of resources, skills and training,” Hauser-Lindstrom said.

The end of 2005 will also mark the end of the pilot portion of the Horizons Program. Communities, in conjunction with the Northwest Area Foundation, have begun the evaluation process to determine impacts and lessons learned from the program. This data in turn will guide program improvement and investment strategy, expected to reach $25 million by 2008, for upcoming leadership development programs.

For more information about the Horizons Program at Okanogan County Extension or the Northwest Area Foundation, visit the website at http://okanogan.wsu.edu/horizons/index.html, or call Lori Northcott at 509-422-7245.

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