WMU News

Improving quality of life in Benton Harbor

May 9, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- Faculty and staff members at Western Michigan University are expanding their efforts to aid community development in Benton Harbor, thanks to a recent grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Community Partnerships.

The $399,996 "Community Outreach Partnership Center" grant was awarded to WMU's Center for Community Asset Building. Founded in 1996, the University's center aims to strengthen communities' financial, physical, social, political and human/intellectual assets. The center has formed a special relationship with the Benton Harbor area, partnering with a number of community organizations to build individual and organizational capacity and to improve the quality of life within the city.

"In 1999, the University participated in an economic summit in Benton Harbor, which involved a variety of community leaders and representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice and HUD," says Sharon L. Anderson, director of the Center for Community Asset Building. "It was determined that our center would focus its community outreach efforts on Benton Harbor, working on a number of initiatives over a period of years. The COPC project is one part of a holistic strategy for the city of Benton Harbor."

WMU faculty and staff members from a variety of disciplines are involved in the three-pronged project funded by the grant. Project components include:

Entrepreneurial Training Program. Dr. Trudy Verser, associate dean for external affairs in the Haworth College of Business, is developing an entrepreneurial training program for African American women, many of whom have been affected by the Welfare to Work policy.

Professional Development. Dr. Osama Abudayyeh, assistant professor of construction engineering, materials engineering and industrial design, is creating a model for project management in the city's manager's office. According to Anderson, because of high staff turnover in the office it has often been difficult for staff members to track projects and grants. The system is expected to be implemented late this spring.

Indigenous Capacity Building. This component is the most complex, Anderson says. A multifaceted needs assessment recently completed by three WMU faculty members and one CCAB staff member indicated that many of the resources people identified as needed to build strong families were already available in the community--people just didn't know where to find them. The indigenous capacity building effort will focus on connecting people with local services, along with creating a few new programs to fill in obvious gaps. Plans include: a "211" information and referral line being developed in conjunction with the local United Way; parenting education and health screening programs; youth development; family literacy; and an effort to transform an area food pantry into a family pantry that carries non-food items for emergency needs.

"This program is an excellent example of the way WMU partners with agencies and community members to improve the quality of life in Southwest Michigan," says Anderson, who received a "Building Better Communities Award" last year from former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. "It's also an opportunity for us to draw on the diverse strengths of our faculty, staff and students to make a real difference."

Media contact: Jessica English, 616 387-8400, jessica.english@wmich.edu

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