WCA Stories of Impact
Kathi Johnson, Head Start Family Advocate
Self-Sufficiency Award Winner 2019
Kathi Johnson first became aware of the Head Start program during the summer of 2000 when an employee of Head Start placed a flyer in her storm door. In August 2000, she completed an application and enrolled Shayna, her daughter, into Westmoreland Community Action’s home-based Head Start program. The purpose was to get Shayna into a pre-school program in order to help her become socialized with other children her age. Kathi was involved in Shayna’s education and the program by attending field trips and participating in socialization events at the Head Start center once a month. Kathi also received weekly visits at her home in West Newton from her first Home Visitor, Nancy Green. Visits went very well but Kathi decided to move to the City of Jeannette.
A new Home Visitor, Elizabeth Clark, was assigned to support Kathi and Shayna. According to Kathi, Elizabeth saved her from self-destruction. A center-based spot opened up for Shayna in the Jeannette Head Start center and she began her enrollment on September 11, 2001. Ironically, while America was attacked by terrorism, Kathi’s own world began to crumble under her feet. Her husband began an extra-marital affair and then subsequently took her children from her. Kathi, without critical coping skills at this time and distraught because she did not have her children with her, became suicidal and homicidal towards her husband. With the help of her Home Visitor, Elizabeth, she admitted herself into the Westmoreland Hospital Mental Health Unit on a 72-hour (302) commitment. Elizabeth kept in constant contact with Kathi and helped her out of this stressful situation by visiting her and maintaining verbal communication through phone contact. Needless to say, Kathi was in mental and emotional distress and was financially stressed as well. At this point Kathi took a two-week break to sort her life out with the help of Elizabeth. Her children were returned to her and a plan for the children was developed.
In November 2001, Kathi realized that she needed to leave this situation so she moved again, this time to Youngwood where she and her children stayed with a co-worker for four months. There was no spot for Shayna in the local Head Start Center so Kathi enrolled her in the home-based option and welcomed weekly visits by a new Home Visitor, Lynne Golembiewski. Lynne had wonderful advice for Kathi that worked for her and helped her become stronger as a parent, both mentally and financially. Lynne was there for her during this transition period of Kathi’s life. Kathi felt that there was a natural connection with Lynne and she always looked forward to her weekly visits. An opening eventually became available and Shayna returned to the center-based option; Lynne now visited Kathi and Shayna on a monthly basis. Lynne states, “Kathi was always cooperative with home visits and never cancelled with me. She was always involved with her children, especially with their education and development.” Shayna completed the Head Start Program in May 2002.
In July 2002, Kathi moved to Belle Vernon where her youngest daughter, Jami, started in the Mon Valley Head Start home-based program. She eventually enrolled in the center-based program in the fall of 2003 where they met their new Home Visitor, Donna Deluca. Kathi at this point was starting to get on her feet financially and found love again with her current husband, Scott. Kathi considered herself stable at this point as far as having a safe, comfortable, and stable home for her daughters. Donna inspired Kathi to become a registered voter and encouraged her to volunteer at the Mon Valley Head Start center where Kathi volunteered four hours a week. She would help out at presentations and would attend every parent meeting. Kathi, being interested in everything Head Start, invested more and more time with the program and became a member of the Policy Council in September of 2003 where she found her voice and came out of her shell. Jami completed the Head Start program in May of 2004.
Kathi, having seen how much help Head Start can be, not only for her children but for herself, felt it was time to formally give back to the program. She applied for a job in Head Start and was hired as a substitute classroom aide in the Mon Valley and Jeannette Head Start Centers. When a Classroom Aide position opened in the Mon Valley center she applied and got the job. Kathi remained in that position until February 2005, and with the encouragement of Patty Berkey who helped her complete an in-house application, she applied and secured the Home Visitor position for the Mon Valley Head Start Center. Patty says, “I was the training coordinator at the time and I saw potential in Kathi. As a former Head Start parent she was clearly an excellent role model for other parents so I encouraged her to apply to be a Home Visitor.”
Kathi and her family moved to Ruffs Dale (her current residence) in November of 2005 and she remained the Mon Valley Home Visitor until she transferred to the Mount Pleasant Head Start center in August 2006, which was closer to home. Kathi continued with this job until June of 2009 where she became a transportation aide for the agency. In November 2009 she became a Center Support Staff. In August 2016 Kathi became a Family Service Worker, gaining even more responsibilities of juggling a home visiting schedule, assisting in the classroom, running parent meetings, planning family activities, and tracking attendance. Kathi is currently a Family Advocate with the support of her supervisor, Family and Community Partnership Coordinator, Bill Vigliotti. Kathi goes the extra mile and goes above and beyond to assist the families that she works with because she enjoys being a mentor and providing support to families. It is her dream to continue up the ladder and advance within the agency. Kathi says, “Throughout my involvement with Westmoreland Community Action Head Start I have been driven to succeed and always wanted my children to have a normal, successful life where they can reach their goals. I was given power, confidence, and support. It made me a better parent and a leader.”
Kathi has participated in numerous trainings through her employment with Westmoreland Community Action (WCA) and has kept her Child Development Associate degree current, completed her Family Development Credential for Strength-Based Family Worker and kept it current, and has taken 30 college credits through Westmoreland County Community College with the help of WCA. Kathi has participated in community involvement serving as PTA Vice President for two years, color guard representative for the local high school band for four years, and Assistant Leader for Daisies/Brownies for three years.
She is married to her husband, Scott, and they have three successful daughters. The eldest, her step-daughter, Heather, 23, whom she raised since she was four years old, currently works as a Therapeutic Support Staff and is attending graduate school at Pitt studying Psychology. Shayna, 22, is a college student studying Social Work and Human Services. And Jami, 20, works as an Emergency Vet Tech for Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center. Kathi has instilled in all of them the importance of volunteering and providing assistance, as they all frequently help at WCA’s Head Start center. They reside in a single-family home in the community of Ruffs Dale where Kathi enjoys gardening, canning, walking her dogs, and Facebooking. The family is happy and living out their dreams with the help of Westmoreland Community Action. Kathi has been involved with WCA for 19 years and has been employed with the agency for the past 15 years. She has proven that she can overcome obstacles and barriers that are standing in her way and be self-sufficient
Self-Sufficiency Award Winner 2018
In 2005, at the age of 19, Erica Stouffer got pregnant. The birth required an emergency C-Section and caused a number of health complications that resulted in her not being able to work for about a year. She was living at home with her parents but had no income to support her or her newborn, so she applied for Welfare Assistance and WIC for her daughter Isabella. After a year of receiving assistance through Welfare, she was required to choose one of two different tracks to continue to receive assistance: the EARN (Employment, Advancement and Retention Network) Program which required that she become employed, or the KEYS (Keystone Education Yields Success) Program, and attend school. She decided to go through the KEYS Program at Westmoreland County Community College and continue to receive Welfare Assistance and WIC.
In 2006, Erica enrolled at WCCC full-time but experienced academic challenges along the way. In 2008, she secured a part-time Work-Study position at the college. In 2008, she also became eligible for housing assistance (Section 8) and decided to move out on her own for the first time. Erica’s relationship with her daughter was important to her so she had to give some serious thought to their living arrangements. She moved from Derry, PA to Greensburg while still working at the college and attending school. She was fortunate to be able to obtain childcare at the college so she took her daughter to work with her each day for the next year. Between 2008 and 2011, Erica cohabitated for a few months with her daughter’s father until the relationship became too abusive. Fortunately, he decided to walk away from the relationship, but in revenge, vigorously pursued child custody. To this day, Erica is still tormented and harassed by her ex on a consistent basis.
In 2011, Erica decided to attend Mt. Aloysius College in Cresson, PA but it was not a very good match for her and her daughter. She was working two part-time jobs and also dealing with the continued custody battle. It was a difficult adjustment as she had moved so she would be closer to the new college and away from her family. For a while things were good. However, around the time that her daughter started Kindergarten, Erica lost a close friend and one of her part-time employers closed their doors. She sought new employment but did not have much success. She felt lost. She knew it was time to move back closer to home, near family and basically start over. She figured she had to either stay in the area near school, find employment outside of the surrounding city, spend a lot on daycare and stretch herself too thin, or just go back home. She knew what she had to do. So, she moved back closer to home, started working a part-time job and went back to WCCC to obtain a degree.
After changing her major a couple of times and accumulating close to 100 credits, in June 2014, Erica received an Associate Degree in Liberal Arts from WCCC. While Erica was proud of her accomplishments, she knew she needed to further her education since her employment opportunities were not getting much better. Soon after graduation, Erica was introduced by a close friend, since deceased, to Westmoreland Community Action’s Mothers Making More (M3) program. M3 was created as a strategy to increase opportunities for single mothers to earn family sustaining incomes by advancing their education in targeted careers. M3 assists with underlying barriers to furthering their education. Erica applied to the program and was accepted; immediately she began receiving guidance and assistance with returning to school. The program helped her apply to Seton Hill University in the Human Services Program and granted her one of their two available scholarships.
Over the next couple of years, Erica struggled both financially and emotionally (still battling over custody of her daughter). In fact, in 2015 Erica lost custody of her daughter Isabella over unfounded allegations. She was crushed and didn’t know what to do. She continued to work and go to school but getting out of bed each day was a struggle. After a vicious legal battle, in October 2017 Erica received 50% custody of her daughter.
WCA’s Mothers Making More program provided both financial and moral support to Erica through all her crises. They provided not only the scholarship, but paid for major car repairs, Summer classes, school supplies and provided a laptop computer. The program staff, especially Carlotta Paige, M3 Program Manager, was emotionally supportive and helped keep her spirits up when she was feeling down.
In May 2017, Erica’s daughter Isabella and immediate family members got to watch her walk across that stage and receive her Bachelor’s degree from Seton Hill University. Her twin sister cried like a small baby at the sight of her sister receiving her degree. Erica said that “this special moment was one of the proudest moments ever” in her life.
After graduation, Erica continued to pursue entry-level positions and was still working part-time jobs up until the first part of 2018. In March, she accepted an entry level, full-time position in human services and began her new career path. She continued to receive welfare benefits (including food stamps) until the end of May when she was no longer eligible because of income. Around the same time, she was advised that she successfully met all of her goals for a housing program and at the end of May purchased her first home for her and her daughter.
Erica wants everyone to know:
“Personally, I want to thank the specific programs and caseworkers that have helped guide me on my journey so far: Department of Public Welfare, KEYS Program, WIC, Housing Authorities (Westmoreland, Indiana, and Cambria Counties), Mothers Making More, and Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Also, I would like to thank Casey Cavanaugh from the KEYS Program and Carlotta Paige for their personal support in helping me throughout the years in the programs, while attending college. I have great admiration for them both. I look up to these two women, and am very thankful for their dedication and quality with their work. Thank you for letting me share my story.”
The Denner Family's Story
The sweet sound of success thanks to medical assistance
Charlene Denner takes the sparkly pink and purple hearing aids out of her ears and shows off the batteries to demonstrate that she can take care of them all by herself. In addition to understanding routine maintenance and recognizing that the battery needs to be replaced every 10 days, the precocious 6-year old has “adjusted to wearing them really, really well,” says her mom, Bethany.
Bethany and husband, Adam, didn’t realize at first that Charlene had hearing issues. “We just thought she wasn’t listening, not paying attention, like any other 3-year-old,” she explains. Charlene was in a Head Start program at the time and, when she failed two routine hearing tests, the family took her to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC to see a specialist.
“Charlene now has hearing therapy five times a week and speech therapy once a week,” says Bethany. “Because of all the services and help she’s received, Charlene is right on track to be ready for first grade in the fall. We were worried she wouldn’t succeed.” Those services are provided through Pennsylvania state medical assistance program.
Money is tight for the Denner family. Bethany works full-time at Wal-Mart and Adam is unemployed. The medical assistance Charlene receives makes it possible for the family to afford care despite their financial challenges. “Charlene wouldn’t be where she is now without the therapy, hearing aids and services,” Bethany adds. “She is coming home with good grades in kindergarten and is even writing small sentences. She’s succeeding.”
Charlene’s younger brother, Adam Jr., turns three in July and is excited to begin the Head Start program. Bethany says his hearing is routinely evaluated, as well, to see if he also has hearing disorders. “So far, so good,” Bethany adds. “But now we know what to look for. And, more importantly, with medical assistance, we know who to contact for help.”
Story taken from http://familyfirstpa.org/families/denner/
WCA Housing Services
Steven Linden began his house search in early fall 2016 and ended up at the doorstep of Westmoreland Community Action’s Housing Counseling and Money Management Center. He had his eye on one of the newly constructed houses on South Sixth Street, part of the Neighborhood Revitalization Project in Jeannette.
After looking at the home with his realtor, Steven decided to enroll in the housing program and submit his application for processing and program approval. Steven was quickly pre-approved to purchase a WCA home that featured newly purchased appliances such as a washer, dryer, refrigerator and stove at no cost and $7,000 in down payment and closing cost assistance.
Following loan pre-approval, Steven displayed a lot of patience and a strong desire to purchase the home. Anxious to submit a mortgage loan application, Steven was faced with the necessity of waiting to apply for a loan. As a prerequisite for loan application, WCA’s second and third mortgage documents had to be revised by WCA’s solicitor and approved by the Department of Planning and Development of Westmoreland County.
During the wait, Steven continued to express his interest in the home, worked diligently with WCA’s housing counselors, and attended a Pre-Closing Educational Seminar. After having numerous hurdles to overcome, Steven closed on his new home on January 27, 2017!
Rhonda Wilkins, Head Start Teacher
Self-Sufficiency Award Winner 2017
The first time I heard about Head Start was from my sister-in-law in 1998. She had her daughter in the program and asked if I wanted to put my son in also. Both she and her husband were very involved with the program. My son was four when he started and at the time I was expecting another child in November. I thought it was a great opportunity for him to experience before kindergarten.
In 1992 I decided to enroll my third child into Head Start. She was very shy and I thought it would be good for her to have that social interaction with children her age before she started school. I also grew during this time because I was not confident about myself and was uncomfortable about being around people. My home visitor at the time helped a lot with getting me involved in things. The following year I then decided to start college.
In November of 1994 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to quit school to go through all my treatments. At the time my husband was self-employed and had no health insurance for either of us. After starting the procedure, the hospital helped my to apply for medical assistance to cover all the expenses that would accumulate over the period of time that I needed it. After going through my treatments and being diagnosed cancer free in 1999 I was taken off medical assistance. I was concerned about not having health insurance because I still had to have check ups but not sure how I was going to pay for them.
After talking with my husband we decided that I would go to work and find something that would have health insurance and also be beneficial raising a family. That’s when I decided to apply for a position with Head Start. In December of 1999 I applied for the position of cook. After the interview and being very persistent, making many phone calls to HR, I got the job.
I worked as the cook for a while and then an opening for a home visitor was posted. With encouragement from my coworkers I applied for the job and was hired for the position. I enjoyed working with the families and helping them with things they needed just as I was helped when I was in the program. A few years later I was approached by my supervisor about becoming a teacher. I wasn’t sure about the position because I didn’t feel qualified enough. But with the support of my supervisor and some coworkers I accepted the position.
I have been a teacher now for about five or so years and I really enjoy my job. I have also during this time gone back to school, attained two associate degrees and then went on to get my bachelors degree. It is such a blessing to be able to work with children at this age, helping them feel confident about themselves. I also enjoy working with the families, building relationships with them and helping in areas that they may be struggling with. I can say over the years that Head Start has been a huge blessing to me in that it has helped me build my own self-confidence and shown me how much I love helping people.
Abriana Ritenour, District Manager with Arbonne
Transitional Employment Program at Work
Abriana Ritenour sought supportive life skill services while enrolled in the Transitional Employment Program within WCA’s Workforce Development Services as she was facing unstable living conditions heading into the colder months and limited social/emotional support. She enthusiastically expressed her interest in receiving guidance with life skill building in the areas of self-confidence, emotional resiliency, goal setting, and problem solving.
Utilizing client-directed coaching, she met regularly with her Case Manager, Kathy Rivera, to discuss her challenges, review progress, and modify her target tasks when needed. Abriana was self-motivated, highly engaged, and responded positively to constructive feedback. She exemplified the emerging young adult seeking to rise above perceived barriers to become more successful in her journey of self-sufficiency; this is commonly referred to in modern terms as “adulting.”
Abriana blossomed in her self-identified life skill goals grounded in a therapeutic non-clinical approach. Although her full-time employment situation changed after she left the program, she has established herself as a District Manager with Arbonne, an online sales company marketing makeup, nutrition, skin care, and hair care. She also reconnected with family while seeking increased opportunities for positive social connections to further her personal life goals.