Making Strides: With University's Help, Community Moves Toward Stabilization

Eileen Wolfington

"Partnerships and bringing people together to focus their resources on a specific community can bring the greatest successes."

—Kay Gasen, Director, Community Partnership Project, University of Missouri-St. Louis

When you combine the resources of a university, community partners and residents, positive outcomes can occur. A good example is the Affton Community Partnership, which began in January of 2006, with help from the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). How did Affton, an inner ring community in south St. Louis County, and the university, in north St. Louis County, get connected?

It started with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of University Partnerships (OUP), which encourages universities to work in communities, using faculty, master students and advanced undergraduates. The partnership with Affton was the result of a two-year, $200,000 New Directions grant awarded to UMSL under OUP's Community Outreach Partnership Centers program.

To select a community, the university had a series of conversations with St. Louis County and other elected officials. It was determined that the Affton area was appropriate for a number of reasons.

The largely middle-class community is unincorporated, so it does not have a local government that can make binding decisions. It does, however, have a strong sense of community. One of the distinguishing features of Affton is that it has the largest percentage of older residents in Missouri. It also has a large population of Bosnian immigrants who have moved to the area in recent years. This ethnic group represents approximately 25 percent of the Affton School District and 30 percent of the Bayless School District, which is also located in Affton.

Community leaders were eager to participate. University individuals involved came from departments such as Social Services, Gerontology, Public Policy and Administration, and Psychology. Although it is not uncommon for UMSL to provide assistance on community projects, the scale of the Affton project was uncommon.

Other partners included the local chamber; school districts; police neighborhood captains; FOCUS St. Louis, an organization that promotes community connections; the International Institute of St. Louis; St. Louis County Planning; the St. Louis County Economic Council; and the Affton Community Betterment Association (ACBA).

Three focus areas were identified: (1) welcoming new Americans to the Affton community, (2) supporting Affton's older residents and (3) building capacity to bring about change.

Welcoming New Americans

The ACBA, UMSL and the International Institute collaborated to form the Affton New Americans Task Force. With assistance from the International Institute, the task force initiated the Affton Community Links program to bring longtime residents and new Americans together to support one another. Three groups were formed that focused on supporting a multicultural business corridor, neighborhood networks, and school and community relations. Two success stories followed.

The nearby St. Louis Enterprise Center now houses a satellite office for the Business Links Department of the International Institute. It provides technical assistance in English or Bosnian to clients who want to start or expand a small business. Business Links consultant Elvir Kolenovic said he is glad to be in a building that has many resources in one place for people who want to stay or move to the area. "Helping people to open a business is more difficult than where I came from," he said.

Another successful program that came out of the task force was the development of a Bosnian language and culture class that was held during three, 2-hour sessions. The expectation was that about 15 people would enroll. To the task force's surprise, 60 people enrolled, resulting in two class offerings with a third class beginning in the fall.

One of the challenges the New Americans Task Force faced was getting people involved when they were already busy working two jobs or tending to their children. Another challenge was that some people were content with how things were going. The conditions in Affton are not severe, so there isn't a sense of urgency. The biggest complaint was about the appearance of Gravois Road, the community's main thoroughfare, where small businesses occupy aging, nondescript buildings.

Supporting Affton's Older Residents

"The university involvement is to facilitate and provide an extra catalyst-energy for people already embedded in the community."

—Ann M. Steffen, Director of Clinical Training and Associate Professor, Department of Psychology-UMSL

The Affton community has a large older adult population and an aging housing stock dating back to the 1950s. The Affton Community Partnership conducted telephone interviews and face-to-face surveys of older adults and found differences between two age groups. Those 80 years old and above were more vulnerable than those ages 65 to 79 who said they were doing just fine and planned to remain in their homes. However, for the most part, their homes have not been modified to be older-adult-friendly.

Rose Terranova, director of family and community services for St. Louis County, said Affton's older residents comprise a very independent population, most of whom do not think they need help.

Terranova's office recognized that, eventually, these residents will need some type of community service. The partners decided not to create new services, but to package information on existing services with a focus on local contacts in Affton. A brochure was created that combined information from the County Older Resident Programs and the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging. These programs historically market their programs and services independently.

Two additional successes resulted from this initiative.

The first identified the process St. Louis County uses to distribute citations for code violations. An agreement was made that the county would distribute home care and repair flyers with citations so homeowners would know about options available to help them make needed repairs.

The second success was the creation of a risk-identification sheet. University students accompanied drivers who deliver meals to homebound residents. Drivers know the residents well and can identify clients who are beginning to deteriorate. A risk-identification sheet is a tool that can inform service providers about the condition of their client so that appropriate referrals can be made.

Because of these successes and others, St. Louis County introduced a housing initiative in Affton designed to prevent older residents from losing their homes. Terranova said the project, called Home Sweet Home, has two critical elements: an assessment of a house's condition and an assessment of services the homeowner needs.

The partnership's Aging Successfully Committee developed strategies for three focus areas. These include raising awareness about aging in place (staying in your home as you age), raising awareness about available community services, and building a volunteer base to serve Affton seniors.

Building Capacity to Bring About Change

"UMSL was the blessing we hoped for. Our timing was pure luck."

—Kathy Jadlot, Affton Community Betterment Association Member

Kathy Jadlot, an Affton resident of 28 years, is on the economic development committee of the Affton Chamber of Commerce. She is also a member and former chairperson of the ACBA. The ACBA realized this community partnership project needed to be bigger and better than what had been tried in the past.

"At the beginning, we were just four people," she said. "We were just too scattered. With UMSL's help, we have a focus. The idea is for us to be a resource, not the worker bee."

So they created the ACBA Strategic Plan. Introduced in October of 2006, the plan had three specific goals: maintaining and improving the quality of and demand for Affton's housing stock, improving support for the Affton and Bayless school districts, and strengthening the ABCA.

With the university's help, the housing committee compiled a list of St. Louis County home improvement and loan-assistance programs into one booklet, making it easier for residents to identify available help. Other housing action items included home improvement assistance, promotion of first-time home buyer programs, monitoring the St. Louis County occupancy permit program and improving the appearance of key corridors, particularly Gravois Road.

In the area of public education, action plans included raising awareness of the financial needs and community contributions of the Bayless School District and involving more volunteers, including older adults, in public school activities.

To strengthen the ACBA, the organization will work toward completing three structural action plans. They include hosting quarterly public forums, revising the ACBA bylaws and articles of incorporation, and establishing a budget to support implementing the strategic plans.

What Happens Now?

The university's reputation and neutrality created connections that traditionally might not have been made. At the recipient level, the university's involvement is seamless. Although the partnership is officially drawing to a close, university representatives say they will maintain a connection with Affton. While the grant enabled funds for some things, the university has made a commitment to help Affton explore alternate funding resources.

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