In the News

Getting the most out of your tax return

By Kathy Matthews, senior program director with Enterprise Community Partners

VITA and EITC Tax Relief for People in NeedEvery year, millions of hardworking taxpayers fail to benefit from getting the most out of their taxes. It’s a given that tax time isn’t a time of year people look forward to, but why not make sure you get as much money back as possible?

One great way to ensure you keep more of what you earn is to take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable tax credit for low-and-moderate-income taxpayers. It helps millions of Americans get a larger tax refund to pay for things like reliable transportation to and from work, adequate and safe housing and putting healthy meals on the table.

Nationwide during 2017, more than 25.8 million eligible workers and families received about $63.8 billion in EITC refunds, with an average amount of $2,470. The EITC is one of the nation’s largest and most effective anti-poverty programs, lifting millions of families out of poverty each year.

The Cuyahoga EITC Coalition supported by Cuyahoga County Job & Family Services, United Way of Greater Cleveland, the IRS, many financial institutions, and hundreds of volunteers, help people claim the EITC at tax time. Just last year, the Coalition and its partners, through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and MyFreeTaxes.com, helped connect more than 5,000 people in Cuyahoga County to roughly $7 million in EITC tax refunds – money coming right back into our community and being spent at local businesses. This ultimately bolsters our local economy and makes our community an even greater place to call home.

“The EITC and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) can make a real difference for workers who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Diane Gatto, director of United Way 2-1-1.

Free tax prep services for you

Beginning, January 20, 2018, the Cuyahoga EITC Coalition is offering free tax preparation services to working families at 21 tax sites throughout Cuyahoga County. Because workers move into and out of eligibility based on changes in their marital, parental and financial status, millions of workers will qualify for the EITC for the first time this year, making awareness of this important tax credit critical. At a VITA site, individuals can get free help determining their EITC and CTC eligibility and claiming these important tax credits.

EITC Awareness Day tax events

The Coalition is raising awareness of these services by hosting an EITC Awareness Day event on January 26 at Gordon Square from 1:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. There are also several Super Saturday events scheduled with:

  • CHN Housing Partners, hosted by St. Ignatius High School and sponsored by Key Bank on February 3
  • Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland, hosted by Cleveland Central Catholic High School and sponsored by Third Federal Savings & Loan on February 10
  • Notre Dame College, sponsored by Ohio Savings Bank, a division of New York Community Bank on February 17

Join us and take part in EITC Awareness Day to learn how you can get more out of your tax return. We also hope you will advocate expanding the EITC for those roughly 7.5 million Americans who are ineligible, who are actually taxed into poverty as a result.

Are you eligible?

To check your eligibility for the EITC, visit www.irs.gov/eitc. To find a VITA site near you or schedule an appointment, dial 2-1-1 or visit refundohio.org to learn more.

About Kathy Matthews

Kathy Matthews - Enterprise CoalitionKathy Matthews, a Senior Program Director with Enterprise Community Partners, has led the Cuyahoga EITC Coalition for the last twelve years.  Ms. Matthews is well versed in the administration and operation of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites and provides oversight for 400+ IRS certified volunteers and 25 VITA locations. Since its inception in 2005, the Coalition has prepared over 107,000 income tax returns resulting in $144M refunds for low and moderate-income families living in Cuyahoga County.

Prior to joining Enterprise, Ms. Matthews has over 18 years of corporate work experience in the financial industry in Cleveland and Chicago. During her corporate tenure, she held various leadership roles within the retail, commercial, and client services business units. Her experiences include several management positions along with time spent leading corporate-wide, diverse, revenue generating and expense reduction initiatives.

Ms. Matthews has a bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology from John Carroll University.  Ms. Matthews is a founding member of OutRun Ovarian Cancer (OROC) – a volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising ovarian cancer awareness and money for research and education. She also dedicates her volunteer time in support of several schools located throughout the Cleveland area and most recently, served as a volunteer for Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services.

A promising year for the bold path ahead

Augie Napoli Headshot for UseA new year has never felt more promising. At United Way of Greater Cleveland, we are in a position to transform promise into action against the groundswell of poverty in our region.

The path in 2018 is steadfastly guided by the light of our bold, new 3-year strategic plan that continues to break the mold for how to most effectively tackle community issues and challenges.

I’m excited to share that we are currently in one of the most crucial phases of our reinvigorated process, among the many we have put in place. We are evaluating which agencies and programs throughout our region demonstrate the fullest capabilities to serve as our problem-solving partners.

Change through data, partnerships

Our Community Impact team is undertaking this crucial task, equipped for the first time with a powerful tool—the 2017 Community Assessment of the needs of people throughout Cuyahoga County. This report is the most comprehensive body of data United Way has amassed about the condition, perceptions and needs of those in the communities we serve.

This report also revealed to us that we needed to reform our allocations process to better serve the people in most critical need. The outcome of this was the inception of our Community Hub Model.

The model is designed to provide funding for program capacity, while creating opportunities for programs to collaborate. Our goal is to create a more effective social-service network by convening people and resources to better impact poverty and its underlying causes.

Once we have fully vetted our potential partner agencies and programs, we will apply this very same data-driven approach to choosing which organizations to allocate your valued donations.

And this is where the heart of the new strategic plan beats strongest.

Funding will require agencies to closely collaborate with one another in an entirely new fashion to help ensure there is an even greater impact. Stringent standards of accountability will require evidence that the programs and services we fund are making measurable progress toward long-term solutions, which include:

  • Preparing children to succeed in school, from early childhood to post-secondary education
  • Ensuring parents have adequate financial educations to find stable jobs that can support a household without constant struggle
  • Providing access to quality health care and medications
  • Refusing to allow families to suffer because they cannot afford basic needs like food, shelter and heat

Through all of this we will demand of our partners, and of ourselves, a transparency that earns the deepest trust of all stakeholders and instills their unwavering confidence in us.

Other initiatives for success

To our donors, we pledge to foster a more personalized and rewarding fundraising experience that empowers the philanthropic spirit by better aligning contributions with the causes that resonate most-deeply within. Our efforts will inspire new supporters to join the cause and give of their time, talent and treasure.

And rest assured that the talented staff at United Way is committed to a high-performance, team-centric workplace culture grounded in best-practices and bolstered by the advanced technological support they need to execute our strategic plan.

Together, We're Greater

Solving complex problems of the human condition takes courage, perseverance and passion. Those are core traits that have defined United Way from our inception more than a century ago, and are the very traits that will keep us sure-footed as we surge ahead with our ambitious strategy.

We are truly grateful to have so many of you walking arm-in-arm with us as we take on the challenges that lay ahead. Prepare to experience a year of bold, innovative strides that will not only transform promise into action, but transform action into success.

Setting the stage for servant leadership

Peter Orozco - National Urban Fellow - United Way of Greater ClevelandBy Peter Orozco, National Urban Fellow, Community Impact at United Way of Greater Cleveland

I still remember the night my life changed, leading me down a new path and sculpting me into the person I would become. It was my first semester at New Jersey City University, training to be a classical musician. There were many hurdles that I had not anticipated, especially since I was the first in my family to go to college. I did not have context from family members as to what to expect. And being a type 1 diabetic only compounded the situation and my anxiety. These new academic challenges and the struggles of coming into adulthood became overwhelming, which had a negative impact on my diabetes care.

My blood sugar numbers were skyrocketing, distracting me from doing the good work that would make me a successful musician. One night in December, while trying to control my condition, I accidentally overdosed on insulin. That night, I slipped into a diabetic coma.

I was out for a day-and-a-half before the paramedics stuck an IV in my arm to wake me. After a long recovery in the hospital—which consisted of counseling from therapist and nurses on learning to cope with diabetes, I was forced to drop out of school and subsequently lost my health insurance.  Suddenly, I was working just so I could afford the price of insulin.

Capitalizing on a surprise opportunity

Five months later, I received a letter to join a leadership program on campus. It was the first time I had been invited to something like this, and I was excited to be considered for such a great opportunity. The caveat: I could only participate if I was a student.

Peter Orozco - National Urban Fellow (NUF) with other fellows in New York - United WayI knew this was a fantastic opportunity, so I saved up enough to pay for one class the following semester, and immediately joined the program. The leadership program was my first networking experience. In this group, supported by students and faculty, a plan was devised to help me fill out financial aid forms and sign up for Medicaid. With the guidance of this connected network of students and staff, I received health insurance and re-enrolled in school on fully funded Federal Pell grants.

I eventually became the student president of this leadership program and I graduated with honors.

My experiences with the power of networks and leadership education inspired me to build a career in public service. This inspiration eventually led me to the National Urban Fellowship (NUF). NUF is a rigorous 14-month, full-time graduate degree program culminating in a master’s degree in Public Administration.

As part of the program, Fellows are sent to cities around the country to work in different communities on a variety of issues. In the process, we learn about leadership and community development through mentorships with top leaders in the public sector. One of those opportunities was with the United Way of Greater Cleveland.

Giving back through valuable public service

Our cohort had the chance to hear President and CEO, Augie A. Napoli, and Vice President of Strategic Programs & Knowledge, Sylvia Pérez Cash, share with us the opportunities with United Way of Greater Cleveland. Under the leadership of the new executive team, a mission was implemented to change United Way’s approach to social service. This was certainly an approach and organization I became immediately interested in. They spoke of this mission and a new opportunity for a NUF fellow to work in the Community Impact department with Vice President of Community Impact and General Counsel, Helen Forbes Fields and Associate Vice President Nancy Mendez.

Given my experiences participating in and leading a network in college, I was eager to contribute to United Way – especially the organization’s new Community Hub Model of funding allocations to social services agencies in the region. The Community Hub Model will enable United Way to enhance its strength as the convener of social solutions in Greater Cleveland. I then met with Augie and Sylvia and learned about their leadership styles and their aspirations for Greater Cleveland and the United Way, which fully solidified my desire to help make a difference.

Reflecting on my time at United Way

My experience to date has exceeded my expectations. I’m currently working on three different projects: restarting and enhancing the Youth Fund Distribution Committee alongside An’Tuan Williams; organizing the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District Community Assessment with guidance from Andrew Katusin; and writing my graduate capstone on the development of the Hub Model.

The Community Impact team is very passionate about what they do. Guidance and advice from the whole team—An’Tuan, Andrew, Kara, Jenn, Darlene, Wanda, Matt, Ben Miladin, Ben Jones, Jamie, Nancy, and Helen—has made me feel very much part of the team.

The best way to learn about leadership is experiencing it in action. Augie has been exemplary in demonstrating leadership in action and has made himself available to teach the National Urban Fellows what it takes to lead. The executive team, directors and staff walk the same line.

All of the executives, Assistant Vice President of Community Impact Nancy, directors and staff such as John, Joyce, Deborah, and everyone in the Community Impact Department have given their time to engage and teach the National Urban Fellows about leadership.

Board Members, such as Marc Byrnes and Zulma Zabala, have demonstrated their passion and inspired us to continue sharpening our expertise and leadership skills. During my time here at United Way of Greater Cleveland, I’m being trained to be the next generation of systems thinkers and servant-leaders. In the future, I hope to continue my work in community assessments, become an expert in collective impact and call Cleveland my new home.

About the National Urban Fellows

National Urban Fellows develops accomplished and courageous professionals of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, particularly people of color and women, to be leaders and change agents in the public and nonprofit sectors, with a strong commitment to social justice and equity.

Causes you care about: Creating a lasting impact

United Way of Greater Cleveland Planned GivingWith the holidays in full swing, many of us pause to look inward and explore fundamental questions about our place in the world. Have I achieved what I’ve set out to do in my life? Is my family happy? Am I true to my friends? Have I done enough to make a difference?

After all, as Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” In fact, we give because it makes us feel good.

The Greater Cleveland community has seen tremendous growth and progress, and our donors’ generosity has echoed this success. Yet there are still many residents who struggle to meet their most basic daily needs to survive.

More than 58,000 households in Greater Cleveland are living in poverty.

Cuyahoga County is home to over 245,000 food-insecure people, making it the state’s largest population of people facing food insecurity.

In the City of Cleveland, 66 percent of adults are functionally illiterate. Four-out-of-five fourth graders from low-income families fail to read at a proficient level.*

Can you effect change?

We must preserve and protect our ability to continue to combat these systemic challenges that face so many in our community. One of the most powerful ways to make sure we continue to effect positive change into the future is to include United Way of Greater Cleveland in your will or estate plan.

The prospect of legacy (or estate) planning can be intimidating. You may think you need to have considerable assets to be able to make a gift. The truth is quite different. Many donors contribute and make gifts to the within the limits of their financial ability and life circumstances. But, even with the many barriers we face, many people still give because they believe it is the right thing to do.

Above all else, it is a chance to create a lasting legacy that is a passionate expression of their values beliefs. It is an expression of their most deeply rooted philanthropic spirit; one that can influence others to make the same commitment.

There are quite a few tangible benefits to legacy gifts too: they require no cash outlay and can lower taxes or offer an income for life.

When is the right time to act?

United Way of Greater Cleveland Planned GivingThere is no such thing as being too young to think about creating a will. In fact, making your intentions known, or confirmed now, can ensure you establish a solid estate plan and shape how you want to be remembered through causes and issues you care about.

Whether your calling is making education a right for all; fighting endemic poverty; reducing violence; funding resources to address physical and mental health; or striking barriers that cause chronic unemployment – you can affect real change. Countless families, friends, colleagues and neighbors depend on you.

If you’ve considered making a charitable gift in your will, please contact us directly for a confidential conversation. Our Director of Principal Gifts, Maureen Horton, can help you identify smart giving opportunities that fit your current and future needs. Please contact her at mhorton@unitedwaycleveland.org or by phone at 216-436-2193.


*Data from “United Way of Greater Cleveland 2017 Community Assessment

Presents, life lessons from a special Santa

It’s easy to get the attention of kids when you show up in a Santa hat bearing gifts. But on this crisp, snowy night, United Way of Greater Cleveland’s Young Leaders did more than just play Kris Kringle for the evening. They also made another stride in their continued mission to help children at King Kennedy Boys & Girls Clubs find the path to success.

Members of the Young Leaders cabinet walked into the club Dec. 14 with brightly wrapped boxes of presents specially chosen to inspire both fun and learning.

“We always want the kids to have fun, but we also want them to develop the kinds of skills they can put to use at school and at home,” said Bill Donatone, Young Leaders cabinet co-chair. “They have so much potential and we’re dedicated to ensuring they rise to that potential.”

King Kennedy Body Copy Picture (Kids)

“When we see how the kids respond we can tell this is making a difference. We want them to thrive in life, and you know what? They will.”

– Logan Broadbent, Young Leaders cabinet co-chair

The gifts, purchased through donations raised by this year’s Young Leaders, included multiple games of checkers, Pictionary, Mancala and Connect Four, along with Wii remote controls. Some of the children broke into new packs of Uno and flash cards, while others put jump ropes and pool cues to immediate use.

Santa’s bag was also filled with 100 books donated by Scholastic Inc. in support of Young Leaders’ adopted mission of reducing the low-income achievement gap for children at the club. The group’s earlier projects included raising funds to establish special reading rooms in several local schools.

United Way of Greater Cleveland’s Young Leaders are rising professionals in their twenties and thirties who work to make our community better through philanthropy, volunteerism and advocacy. The program boasts a network of more than 2,000 members.

Young Leaders set example for volunteers of the future

While the children were certainly surprised by the gifts, they were already quite familiar with the faces that delivered them. These Young Leaders have forged a close relationship with the boys and girls at King Kennedy over the past year, visiting the club monthly and engaging in activities with the children to teach social skills.

Some activities and skills could entail playing basketball or billiards together to impart lessons in good sportsmanship, or eating lunch as a group and encouraging the children to focus on good nutrition and cleaning up after a meal.

One of the girls told United Way of Greater Cleveland the visits and mentoring she received from Young Leaders instilled more confidence in herself.

“I feel like they really cared about me and want me to do well,” said 10-year-old Rocsheil Taylor. “We also have a really good time together!”


Watch the Event

United Way Young Leaders open another reading room at Harrison Elementary

Harrison Reading Room

 

The Young Leaders cabinet debuted the latest installment of their Readers Become Leaders room at Harrison Elementary School in Lakewood on Dec. 1.

The funding to install this room came from funds raised at Fall Ball. This yearly event is a collaboration with United Way of Greater Cleveland’s Community Impact department and a donation from the Cleveland Kid’s Book Bank.

The Harrison Elementary site is the third reading room installment, with one already in existence at Superior Elementary and Thoreau Park. The Readers Become Leaders’ program is slowly becoming a favorite event among the Young Leaders’ cabinet. “The looks on the kids’ faces is what makes it so worthwhile,” said Bill Donatone, co-chair of the Young Leaders’ cabinet. Allison Taller Reich, Young Leaders’ co-chair added, “It’s also hilarious when they enjoy us reading to them and they engage in the story!”

Students from kindergarten to second grade visited the room for the first time on opening day since it’s been recreated with new books, furniture, decorations and more to make it as comfortable and exciting a learning environment as possible. The cabinet members read to the students and each student received a bookbag with books, a coloring book and crayons to take home. According to Sabrina Crawford, principal at Harrison, the bags were a hit. “Many of the students wanted to walk around with their bags on all day,” she noted.

The room is important for students because “they don’t see it as a place where they have to go, but a place they can choose to go to,” said Mrs. Crawford. “Now they [the students] have a special place that is a very comfortable, relaxed space where they can come read to one another, go in place of recess… they are excited about earning time in the room.”

The school also nominated fifth graders as “reading ambassadors” who will help keep the room organized and act as room assistants with students from younger grades.

A young man lives to tell tale after dying from an overdose

This is a special story surrounding our #GivingTuesday initiative to raise awareness, funds, in support of the opioid epidemic.

“I’m really looking forward to going out to Arizona, and I want to make my family proud. I want them to see that I’m above this; I’m a better person than I’ve proven to be. I want to make something out of my life!”

A young man lives to tell tale after dying from an overdose

This is a special story surrounding our #GivingTuesday initiative to raise awareness, funds, in support of the opioid epidemic.


“I’m really looking forward to going out to Arizona, and I want to make my family proud. I want them to see that I’m above this; I’m a better person than I’ve proven to be. I want to make something out of my life!”

Read Story Watch Video Help us raise funds

IIn the shadows of a classroom, a young man of 16 sat ready to tell his story of addiction. After some time working up the courage to speak about his addiction, he began…

“One day I came home and was feeling quite sleep deprived,” said Joe, who’s name isn’t being used to protect his identity because he’s a minor. He came home and went to sleep for a bit. His grandmother came home and woke him. She didn’t ask him why he was home early sleeping. She asked him about money being missing.

In a flurry and without thinking he responded, “I was doing drugs and that’s why the money was missing.” His initial reaction was to run, so he left home and called his drug dealer to pick him up and drive him somewhere. They made some stops to get drugs and then his dealer dropped Joe off at a spot in the woods near a local high school. This was a spot he would frequent with his friends when they wanted to get high. Once they settled in and they made sure they were alone, they began doing the drugs he purchased from his dealer.

Joe was first. He took three hits of the heroin, which would normally be a small amount for him, and overdosed. Little did he know that the heroin was laced with a powerful type of fentanyl, called carfentanil, which according to a WCPN Ideastream segment, is an “opiate 10,000 times more powerful than morphine… the drug is [used] as a tranquilizer for very large animals, like elephants or hippos.”

His two sober friends called 9-1-1 when they realized what was happening and he was rushed to the hospital. It took seven cans of Narcan (also known as Naloxone) to revive him and a few more to stabilize his breathing, which still shocks him at the sheer number as he told his story.

“I just thought that would never happen to me,” Joe added. “They [his grandparents] told me that they still loved me and that I needed to start making better decisions.”

Fortunately for him, New Directions was there to help him and his family through this tragic moment and his addiction through providing individualized, family-based recovery programming. Some of the programs that New Directions offers include getting clients back on track with their education in classroom settings, as well as outpatient counseling and residential treatment.

“It helped me to recognize that I had a problem and get me to focus on solutions,” Joe added with a more upbeat tone is his voice and demeanor. “Going to meetings is really helpful; hearing other people’s stories… knowing that you’re not alone and that it is possible to achieve sobriety.”

Joe is moving out to Arizona to live with his father after he’s discharged from New Directions in the next few weeks. He plans on continuing to expand his passion for music as a guitarist, playing hard rock music like his favorite guitarist Matt Heafy from Trivium. “I’ve always wanted to be a professional musician, or like a studio musician.”

He added with great excitement and emotion, “I’m really looking forward to going out to Arizona, and I want to make my family proud. I want them to see that I’m above this; I’m a better person than I’ve proven to be. I want to make something out of my life!”

 

Opioid addiction shatters a life, separates a family

This is a special story surrounding our #GivingTuesday initiative to raise awareness, funds, in support of the opioid epidemic.

“United Way’s dollars allowed me to participate in a program that gave me so many skills that I can apply in the workplace; gave me opportunities to meet with other people in the community,”

Opioid addiction shatters a life, separates a family

This is a special story surrounding our #GivingTuesday initiative to raise awareness, funds, in support of the opioid epidemic.


“United Way’s dollars allowed me to participate in a program that gave me so many skills that I can apply in the workplace; gave me opportunities to meet with other people in the community,”

Read Story Watch Video Help us raise funds

It all started with a fatal car accident. It could have happened to anyone that day. But this accident was one that would forever change Amanda E’s life. She was injured in the accident and prescribed painkillers to dull the brash pain of that dreadful day.

The story could end there, as it does in many cases, but not for Amanda. As fate would have it, just six days later, her boyfriend would lose his life in a fatal car accident. This tragic secondary trauma was too much for Amanda, sending her into a tailspin.

Her pain medications were used for more than just masking the temporary physical pain. They were being used to escape the mental pain and anguish she felt for both her own accident and the heartbreaking loss of her boyfriend. This callous cocktail of events pushed her to find comfort in the form of a small, scored oval mass that would temporarily dissolve away her pain.

“I ended up abusing my prescription medications and became addicted to those [opiates],” she said as she reflected on the incidents. “That addiction led me to make a lot of really bad decisions in life.”

Leaving her family behind

The sheriff’s department showed up one day with warrants and took her to jail. While awaiting sentencing, she experienced a brief moment of clarity. This is the moment when you recognize that the addiction is taking control of your life. Amanda was still in ‘active addiction’ and said, “I just knew… I cannot continue living like this.” This moment would prove critical in the coming years, as she would encounter her most daunting life challenges.

After being indicted on several charges while out on bond, she ultimately turned herself in – taking responsibility for her actions, prepared to face whatever punishment awaited. She was sent to prison for a term of five years, which seemed like an eternity. “I ultimately knew that I was going to prison. It was a terrible day. It’s hard to tell the people you love that you’re going to be leaving their lives. It’s the worst feeling in the world.”

During her first year in prison, she acclimated relatively well. That was until the holidays came around. Normally a time to celebrate and come together in joy and happiness with family and friends, Amanda found herself alone and separated from her family. She said that being away from her family was when she truly hit “rock bottom.”

“Being in prison is terrible, it is… but, I was doing so much better in prison than my family was at home because they’re the ones who did time. It’s not just me that got sentenced to prison. My entire family got sentenced to prison. It made me realize what an integral part of their life that I am and that I need to be there.”

Finding new hope, change

While in prison, Amanda was presented with several choices for programs she could participate in. These programs are meant to allow the inmate to have proper therapy and counsel to identify issues that led to incarceration and the addiction. They are designed to prepare the inmate for a smoother and successful reintegration back into society.

Amanda knew that it was especially important to choose the program best aligned and suited for her. She reviewed several and focused on a select few that would fit her ambitions for future success. That’s when she found the Chopping for Change program conducted by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM). She determined that program would be a perfect fit and started in May 2016.

The Chopping for Change program is for women who are incarcerated at Northeast Reintegration Center (NERC) in Cleveland. They are permitted to leave NERC to come to LMM five days a week.

“Cooking has definitely been something I’m passionate about. I love to express my creativity in different ways and cooking is just another way for me to be able to do that,” Amanda stated. “It was stressful, but it was fun stress. We were doing positive things. It was great to know that the things we were doing were to prepare the meals for the homeless population… that was very rewarding.”

The first few months of the Chopping for Change culinary arts program are in the classroom. It’s a time when the women receive wraparound services before ever entering the kitchen. They take trauma-informed therapy classes, parenting, financial literacy, drug and alcohol classes, as well as others they may need to help deal with underlying issues and prepare them for success.

“One of my biggest challenges was just being able to identify the things that made me want to use,” Amanda stated with a grin that revealed how challenging looking inward can be, while sharing her initial Chopping for Change experience. “It’s not easy working on yourself. It’s not easy looking at the ugliest parts of yourself. But what’s great about it is finding ways that you can make those parts great again… you can not only help yourself, but others around you.”

Once the wraparound services are complete, they move into the culinary classroom to learn the basics. They then finish their training in the kitchen, learning chef and front-of-the-house skills.

“Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry is like my home away from home,” Amanda exclaimed as she dipped her head and chuckled. “What was great about [LMM] is that they are located here in Cleveland, and this is where I plan to relocate to. For me, they’ve been supportive on so many levels – not only with the programming, but with all kinds of other opportunities. Opportunities to volunteer… these events that I’ve been able to help with have enabled me to network and to be able to give back to an organization that has really given me a lot.”

Amanda has been sober for more than three years now and has fully completed her prison term. She is currently still volunteering with LMM. She helps with meal production on Sundays and catering events, as well as being a mentor and friend to many of the inmates still in the program.

She now works at both Great Lakes Brewing Company and Pier W restaurant. Her gainful employment at these two organizations was in large part due to her working LMM’s annual fundraiser, the Savor event, where she met key people from each business.

“United Way’s dollars allowed me to participate in a program that gave me so many skills that I can apply in the workplace; gave me opportunities to meet with other people in the community,” she stated with a direct and sincere tone. “And now, it gives me the opportunity to be the person they were for me; to be the change that I hope to see in the world.”

Amanda added, “As the face of addiction, you can change your life and you can give back to society. You can be a productive member of society.”


The Chopping for Change program began in January 2016 and continues to grow. It’s a partnership between LMM and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and backed by funding from Cuyahoga County’s Office of Re-Entry.

 

A life saved after a 20-year battle against addiction, Part II

This is a special two-part story surrounding our #GivingTuesday initiative to raise awareness, funds, in support of the opioid epidemic.

This is Part II of Jody Robinson’s story. Jody is in prison and begins to find himself…

A life saved after a 20-year battle against addiction

This is a special two-part story surrounding our #GivingTuesday initiative to raise awareness, funds, in support of the opioid epidemic.


This is Part II of Jody Robinson’s story. Jody is in prison and begins to find himself…

Read Part I Read Part II Watch Video Help us raise funds

A moment of clarity

The culmination of Robinson’s collective life experiences peaked when he was 40-years-old with his personal moment of clarity. This moment, often said to change the course of an addict’s life for the better, is “when they see clearly how their addiction violates their most basic values,” according to a Psychology Today article.

He was an inmate when he met an older man, who was doing life for murder, who had similar life experiences. The man told Robinson about all the money he had, the things he had done and how he ended up still murdering someone over money. This man made it clear that this lifestyle would only lead to terrible outcomes. That moment transformed the way he would approach life moving forward.

He noted that “even after you get that moment of clarity, it is a long road to changing, because it’s not easy to change your defense mechanisms, like being aggressive… being loud…”

He would find himself relapsing several more times during the next decade until he was admitted to Lake Erie Correctional Institute, where he spent four years. He received drug and mental-health counseling and attended a wide array of programs needed to allow for his re-entry back into society during that time.

“I’ve found that if you address these issues [drug access/use] honestly and openly by attending programs that are provided in some of the institutions, such as IOP [intensive outpatient programs], AOD [alcohol and Other Drugs] programs and get a spiritual foundation… it relieves some of the anxiety that you would normally have.”

A structured, supportive release

Robinson was released from Lake Erie Correctional Institute in February 2017 after serving his four-year prison term. He left prison sober and clean. He was dropped off at a Greyhound bus station in Ashtabula County in his wheelchair, with $100 cash from the prison and nowhere to go.

Fortunately, Raheem Bryant, a peer support specialist from FrontLine Services, had already met Robinson at the prison while explaining the Community Transition Program (CTP) to several of the inmates a few months earlier. CTP is a new housing program, through CareSource which has contracted with the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) to manage the housing benefit. The program is meant to assist people who were incarcerated and have gone through a treatment program while in prison.

Bryant was assigned to Robinson and had plans to drive to the bus station and pick him up. Without having met Bryant at that meeting, Robinson wouldn’t have been placed with FrontLine. Bryant brought him back to Cleveland since he had no family or friends in the area.

“I too was like Jody… years in prison… 29 years on drugs,” Bryant stated as his head leaned forward, asserting his conviction and passion for what he does now after being clean for 19 years. “I’ve had a chance to turn my life around and give back. For me, this is not work. My heart is in it… we have a team… our hearts are in it and we love helping people.”

FrontLine Services connected Robinson with EDEN, a nonprofit dedicated to providing housing to some of the most vulnerable people in our community, so he could find housing and receive tenant assistance funds to provide household items and furniture. Both FrontLine Services and EDEN receive funding through United Way of Greater Cleveland.

While awaiting formal contact with EDEN, Robinson stayed in temporary housing at City Mission for 30 days. He also needed to utilize the 2100 Lakeside Emergency Men’s Shelter to supplement the time needed before EDEN could help with housing assistance.

“The re-entry into society is such an important part of success and failure. It’s like the missing key, the missing step to people’s lives, who have messed up their lives and are tryin’ to figure out a way back,” Robinson uttered as he wiped tears from his eyes. “They [agencies] were there and they haven’t stopped being there.”

The future looks bright

After a few weeks in shelters, struggling through the initial stages of re-entry back into society, Robinson was connected with Khaz Ra’el, supervisor of housing stability specialists at EDEN, to assist him with housing assistance through CTP (in collaboration with FrontLine). Ra’el worked with Robinson to introduce him to the program, explain program details, determine where he wanted to live and what properties he could afford.

Jen Griffin, director of housing programs at EDEN, said “For many people, especially people who are incarcerated, who are moving into an apartment, it can be very difficult to find a place. With so many barriers, we want to assist people in finding a good, safe, habitable place to live.”

After a short time looking at apartments, Ra’el identified a property in East Cleveland that would fit Robinson’s needs. He was in his new apartment in just three short weeks; another vast step forward in his renewed life journey and to become a productive individual in society.

“EDEN has taken the financial debt of my rent, and my electricity, those obligations that would normally pressure an individual. They have taken that on themselves until I could get established and complete my education and get employed and be able to stand on my own two feet. They literally helped me furnish my apartment.”

Robinson, now 56, has successfully finished a 40-hour chemical dependency clinical assistant training course and is currently attending classes at Tri-C. He dreams of the day when he will be a chemical dependency counselor; a day when he can be a role model and influencer in preventing others from slipping into the prison of addiction and being the voice and support for those in recovery.

He is driven by his past, his addiction, his pains; all with a renewed sense of hope, faith and purpose for life that he’d never truly felt before. This new sense of purpose is a far cry from the many relapses he experienced throughout his decades of addiction. He now understands that he has the courage and power to oppose any temptation, like that moment in 1995 when he found himself fighting his personal demons at “the Rock.”

“I’m so grateful that you [United Way] took a risk on me,” Robinson shared as he nodded his head in confidence and compassion. After a brief pause of consideration, he added “I’m a firm believer that, as a [future] drug counselor, if I can save, like, just one person, then maybe… I can be forgiven for all the crimes and sins that I’ve committed throughout my life.”

 

Help us raise funds to combat addiction

 


Read Part I of the Jody Robinson story.

 

A life saved after a 20-year battle against addiction, Part I

This is a special two-part story surrounding our #GivingTuesday initiative to raise awareness, funds, in support of the opioid epidemic.

This is the story of a parolee and ex-offender who spent more than two decades battling addiction – from prescription medications to heavy narcotics – and his long journey to recovery.

A life saved after a 20-year battle against addiction

This is a special two-part story surrounding our #GivingTuesday initiative to raise awareness, funds, in support of the opioid epidemic.


This is the story of a parolee and ex-offender who spent more than two decades battling addiction – from prescription medications to heavy narcotics – and his long journey to recovery.

Read Part I Read Part II Watch Video Help us raise funds

In 1995, Jody Robinson found himself on the corner of Brookpark Road and Rocky River Drive in Cleveland; a place they called “the rock.” This was a place that offered the allure of escape; a reprieve from the pain and challenges life so generously shared. Surrounded by cold, cracked masonry and abandoned homes that constituted the area’s public housing and strip clubs at what seemed like every corner, it was no surprise why it was coined “the rock.”

In the beckoning darkness of alleyways, where drugs could be acquired in private and with ease, Jody couldn’t help but relapse yet again.

This was about two years after his previous, and longest, stint of sobriety – a bit more than two years – occurred during the early ‘90s in Columbus, Ohio. He stayed clean then by clutching onto his one passion: working in the kitchen and food service industry.

“Like fish to water, I got back into the swing of things with drug activity and the wrong elements,” Robinson said with a slight sadness and somber tone. “I was so quick to gravitate to the negativity.”

A distinctive gene is adopted

Robinson was born in 1961 in Tarrytown, New York, a small village about 25 miles north of New York City – a quick stop on the Metro-North Hudson Line. His mother, Beverly, was 15 when she had Jody. She was consumed by the addiction of drugs herself. Her drug of choice was heroin.

Her bout with drugs ended when she died of a heroin overdose when Jody was 14. She left behind six other children from another father; now Jody was the oldest and the stepchild to a father he never knew.

“I had to be detoxed as an infant off of the heroin,” Robinson shared as he reminisced about the story his grandmother once told him about his birth. He said his grandmother told him that “The decision was from the doctors that I would suffer some type of deformity… either psychological or physical, or something… there’s just like no way – a mother shooting heroin through her pregnancy – that the child would come out unscarred or unscathed.”

The doctors were right. He would go on to suffer from the inability to use the restroom because his body is unable to process food and liquid in a normal manner. “… Mine [damage] was more like an internal damage to my bowels and colon,” added Robinson as he rehashed this painful history, while sharing the physical and mental struggles of his siblings due to his mother’s regular drug use during each pregnancy.

He said his sister is currently in a methadone program. She started using heroin to supplement her pain medications when they stopped working. His brother Butch died two years ago in July from sclerosis of the liver due to his addiction to heroin and opiates. Two of his uncles also died because of the extensive use of heroin and opiates. He was later told that his father was found dead in a ravine; dumped there after he overdosed.

His story continued with the deaths of nearly every member of his family due to opiate abuse and drug addiction – a tragic and heartbreaking story by any account.

As he leaned back into his dining room chair in his basement apartment with soft jazz music playing on his small off-brand flat screen TV, faded cream-color walls with no art or photos hanging, he sat in silence for a moment thinking. He then continued to tell his story, digressing to the years between being a boy in New York and his current life here in Cleveland.

A youth fostered by support

When Robinson entered the foster system, he was placed with a family kind and caring enough to take him in with their two biological children. This family was Seventh-Day Adventists (Christian-based organization) and truly cared about Robinson’s safety and future.

His foster father saw Robinson’s desire to be independent and allowed him to experience the hardships of the New York streets. He thought it would reveal the harsh reality of the world and set him straight.

In retrospect, Robinson felt that his foster father handled it all wrong. He believed that he had the hereditary traits of his parents. Traits that if exposed to the wrong elements, would lead him into a world of darkness and danger.

Robinson was right. Whether it was truly hereditary, or a manifestation of his past come to life, he found himself going down the same path his parents and the entire family had traveled at the young age of just 15. This was just one year after his biological mother died of a heroin overdose.

“They [foster family] didn’t treat me any different. I had to go to Adventist school all the way up to eighth grade,” Robinson added. “A lot of my stuff happened when my mother OD’d at 14 and I got put in high school at the same time… the combination of the two triggered some stuff that I had in me… so that’s where I ended up… in the streets.”

I had a whole lot of resentments…

“I was carrying around [a lot of shame] as a weight, and the way to cope with it was to medicate, was to use drugs… because you can suppress yourself, you can become numb this way and you won’t have to feel that you’re worthless.”

A future imprisoned by addiction

From the age of 15, Robinson walked the lonely road of addiction. No matter where he went – he spent time in California, Virginia and back in New York City before hopping into a car set for Cleveland – he couldn’t escape the prison of addiction.

“I went through a two-year period of sniffing heroin,” Robinson said as he mentioned how a chemical, called quinine, was removed from the heroin so it wouldn’t burn, making it more desirable to use during the ‘80s. “It was the thing to do. It was cool to sit up in the club and sniff. I ended up with addiction on that and powdered cocaine for about two years.”

After getting off both, he ended up on crack cocaine for approximately 15-20 years, suffering from its deadly effects and ultimately surviving. The words that shaped his long, arduous story were laced with periods of memory loss, aggression and anger, among the litany of other emotions he couldn’t control.

“I spent close to 40 years being in the streets, living by my wits and being alone… it’s not something I would wish on any child to go through,” Robinson added as he shook his head at the sheer amount of time he spent imprisoned by addiction.

He went on to share what someone who lives in the hood… the streets… the tough neighborhoods in America must have: strength. Robinson said that strength is a defense mechanism you need to have, especially being alone.

“You have to make people think you won’t take no junk, that you’re in control. Control is a trick that you put in your mind to make you feel like everything is ok. So, you’re not in control. You’re actually just reacting to every action that comes along,” he said.

This sense of false control and strength were nothing but an illusion. He wasn’t in control, as seen through his various incarcerations throughout those four decades – for everything from drug dealing and holding people hostage for money they owed him, to theft and violent crimes.

In Ohio alone, he was in and out of the prison system approximately eight times based on his recollection. While an inmate during one of his many stretches in the Ohio prison system, he was diagnosed by an Ohio State psychiatrist with schizoaffective disorder, which manifests itself as extreme depression and can transform into manic behavior and anxiety like a flick of a switch.

This was adding fuel to an already blazing hot fire.

“I needed mental help… I needed to get stabilized with mental health treatment,” Robinson said with a stern and thoughtful tone.

He was prescribed Elavil, a mood stabilizer, which is designed to assist in his emotional stability. This medication also helps with his neuropathy (pain and weakness from nerve damage).

 

Help us raise funds to combat addiction

 


Read Part II of the Jody Robinson story.

 

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