Introducing Our Self-Sufficiency Award Winner 2018
Erica Stouffer

Erica and her daughter Isabella hold the keys to their first house.

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.

From L to R: Erica’s mom, Denise McCloskey; Erica Stouffer; and Kylie Kern, M3 Program

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 positons 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.”

Meet Our Self-Sufficiency Award Winner 2017
Rhonda Wilkins, Head Start Teacher

Rhonda Wilkins, fourth from the right, and her family.

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.

Rhonda (left) was nominated by Cheryl Werner (right).

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.

Watch an interview with Rhonda, Journey to Self-Sufficiency — Part 2, created by Community Action Association of Pennsylvania.

Home Sweet Home

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!

The sweet sound of success thanks to medical assistance
Meet the Denner Family
Bradenville, PA

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

Working together with local law enforcement

It has always been the goal of our Crisis Mobile program to help people through a crisis on a more intimate, face-to-face level. The community and individuals in crisis benefit greatly from the success of this unique program in Westmoreland County.

We have encountered great success and growth over the years by networking with community leaders and law enforcement. Crisis Mobile has experienced a more consistent stream of calls by our law enforcement due in part to the ongoing education and understanding of behavioral health and its growing presence in our county.

The Crisis Mobile teams who interact on a daily basis with police officers have formed a strong relationship and hope to continue to strengthen this relationship as it benefits everyone in our county. Through continued marketing and education for law enforcement we should continue to grow and see continued success!

Pictured from left to right, Ligonier Township Police Officer and Chief, who recently assisted our Crisis Mobile team.