'Nameless, faceless' army helps families in need

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Stacy Vogel
Sunday, October 11, 2009

The little girl would much rather have explored the thrift store than sit with mommy and daddy in a boring meeting.

Her lower lip started to tremble as whiny noises threatened to turn into wails.

Instantly, Emily Pope was there with a sucker and a smile.

“See, I’m not so bad,” she cooed as she lifted 2-year-old Nicole in her arms.

Soon, Pope turned her attention to Nicole’s parents, Dana and Adam Mills. They’re participants in Edgerton Community Outreach’s new Hope Housing program, offering up to 12 months of rent assistance and case management.

Pope asked about their goals for the week (furnishing and decorating their apartment), job searches (Adam is a finalist for a factory job and Dana had an interview that day) and needs (diapers and gas money).

Pope’s title is housing case manager, but other titles apply as well—counselor, life coach, cheerleader and parental assistant, to name a few.

“It’s not always just housing,” she said. “Sometimes it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, my kids are driving me nuts.’”

Pope is part of an invisible army in Rock County—the case managers, client advocates and intake staff working to stem the tide of poverty and unemployment, one family at a time.

“They’re that nameless, faceless bunch of people who get up every morning and go to work and do their jobs really well and help as many people as they possibly can,” said Marc Perry, director of planning and development for Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties.

Local service organizations are rushing to take on new clients and start new programs to help the ever-growing number of impoverished and unemployed.

Nowadays, they’re doing more work than ever, sometimes with fewer resources.

“The thing that everybody’s worried about now is staff burnout,” Perry said. “It is truly a 24/7 obligation right now.”

Local case managers said they’re getting by through the support of their co-workers and the knowledge that they’re making a difference.

ECHO, the Janesville faith-based charity, has doubled its number of rent-assistance cases. Caseloads in other areas are up, too.

“From May on, we’ve seen the steady increase of people, and it’s only going to get worse,” said Jessica Schafer, office manager and client advocate.

Employees have been coming in early to handle paperwork that they used to be able to do while the facility was open.

The small staff is close, and that helps, Schafer said. Employees eat lunch together, celebrate birthdays, and get together after work to go swimming or play video games.

“If somebody’s cranky, we’ll send them to a back office,” she said.

Staff members have their own ways to blow off steam, they said. One runs. Another plays video games. Karen Zapotosky, a 15-year client advocate, said she handles stress by praying.

Tami Prochazka, social services coordinator at Salvation Army, said she takes more naps after work than she used to. The Janesville location cut its only case manager this year, so Prochazka has taken on that job in addition to her duties supervising the food pantry, meal site and transitional housing program.

“You just do it,” she said. “There really isn’t an option. It has to be done.”

She keeps her work in perspective by remembering how many people, including many of her clients, can’t find employment.

“We’re the fortunate ones,” she said. “We have our jobs.”

Still, seeing all the need in the community can be disheartening, case managers said. Pope said she focuses on the people she can help instead of trying to save the world.

“I’m not going to help everybody,” she said. “I can only help somebody if they want it.”

And sometimes, you just let it all out, said Sarah Williams, Pope’s supervisor and executive director at Edgerton Community Outreach.

“I think everybody has to have a good cry once in a while,” she said.

Last updated: 11:46 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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