Horizons Program in Washington state brings hope, change to rural towns

Joanna Yorke

Reducing poverty and building prosperity - those are the goals of the Horizons Program: Community Leadership to Reduce Poverty that are giving small rural communities in Washington hope for a better tomorrow.

Funded by the Northwest Area Foundation, Horizons uses grass-roots leadership training and community-development education to address poverty.

Since the program began in 2004, 40 Washington communities have participated in Horizons, all striving to reverse economic decline through leadership, communication and community involvement. Most have experienced great improvement.

“The most common impact I hear from communities is that the program has given them hope,” said Doreen Hauser-Lindstrom, Horizons project director for WSU Extension in Spokane. "Hope to improve their economic situation, increase their social capital and build a community where everyone can thrive."

With that hope, Horizons has provided the structure and tools to communities to make their hopes a reality.                                                                               

For example, said Hauser-Lindstrom, a man in Wishram sitting at home last winter watching it snow thought about people who might be stuck at home, hungry and without a way to get to a store. He worked with Horizons to determine what would be needed to start a meals-on-wheels program for Wishram.

A budget was determined to be about $1,100 per month. The man put down $1,000 of his own money to start the program immediately and later decided to fund the program himself for three months.

“The entire Horizons Program has created an attitude of ownership in the ability to make change and create opportunities,” said Debra Kollock, Stevens County extension director.

Leadership, engagement, skill-building

According to the Horizons website, the program is for rural communities of fewer than 5,000 people with poverty rates of at least 10 percent: Horizons “provides locally delivered training, skill-building and coaching to strengthen community leadership and civic-engagement systems.”

Counties in Washington with communities participating in the Horizons 3 program (July 2008-March 2010) include: Benton, Klickitat, Spokane, Grant, Thurston, Adams, Whitman and Stevens.

“Horizons has been a terrific community development opportunity for eight communities in our county," said Susan Kerr, Klickitat County extension director. "After participants finally got the message that they had the power to control the issues they could address in their community, there was no stopping them.”

Four-part progression

Communities participate in the 18-month Horizons program by completing four required activities. The first, Study Circles, consists of conversation about poverty in the community and action ideas concerning what should be done about it.

LeadershipPlenty is the second activity: The community learns to understand and develop leadership. This helps the community gain the skills needed to address poverty and sustain community action.

The third activity, Community Visioning, brings together the whole community to decide on a shared vision for how to reduce poverty.

Community Coaching and Action, the final step, is when the community comes together to implement the plans for reducing poverty. Community members provide mutual support, coaching and additional resources.

Food a focus

Many of the Horizons communities have focused on the issue of food security, Hauser-Lindstrom said. They have started farmers markets, community gardens, weekend backpack food take-home projects for youth, and canning and food preservation workshops.

Two communities in Klickitat County opened local food banks and two others created a supplemental meal program for seniors and others in need, said Kerr.

 “One child who received weekend food through the backpack program told his teacher, ‘This is the best food I’ve ever had,’ ” she said.

Building healthy communities

Other gains in Klickitat County include monthly community newsletters, new businesses, community centers, community gardens and more. Kerr said new leaders have emerged thanks to leadership training available in each community.

The town of Lyle, for example, has seen increased sharing and communication between small-business owners; conversion of an old primary school into a community center, and inception of a cultural exchange with visiting Chinese nationals, tribal members and other Lyle residents.

In Glenwood, a grant for a school greenhouse was successful, and the community has made progress in telecommunications. A grant proposal to help bring high-speed Internet and cell service to the area is a strong contender for federal stimulus funding.

Goldendale Horizons volunteers offer free tax help for seniors and others. In 2008, they assisted with 72 tax returns that generated $19,555 in refunds from the Earned Income Credit program.

Back Packs for Kids in Goldendale provides healthy snacks to 300 youths dependent on school breakfast and lunch. The program runs on $40,000 from private donations and grants. It is associated with improved school attendance and increased participation in school by participants' parents.

In 2008, one Goldendale community garden produced 1.5 tons of fresh, nutritious vegetables for low-income residents and the food bank.

Stevens County benefited from the Study Circle portion of Horizons, said Debra Kollock, extension director. It created a better understanding of poverty in county communities.

She said she appreciates the small, medium and large tasks that people have offered to do within the community through the program.

“Everyone cannot add or participate at the same level all the time,” she said. “We all have real lives that impact our ability to get involved, but every bit really does make the whole community healthier.”

February 2, 2010

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