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For Good: Helping people take STEPS for Success


Amy Ortiz never dreamed she would be featured on an all-star baseball card.

But she also never dreamed the positive direction her life would take, thanks to a program for Hillsborough County residents that is helping people break the cycle of poverty and learn the tools for success and independence.

Ortiz, 19, is one of more than a dozen STEPS for Success participants whose pictures and testimonials were featured on baseball cards for the program’s 2014 annual gala.

“It has changed my life dramatically,” she says. “I’ve got more confidence in myself. Most important, I’ve got mentors who give it to me straight and help me stay on track.”

STEPS – which stands for sustainability, training, education, planning and support – is under the direction of the University Area Community Development Corporation. Its funding sources include United Way Suncoast, Eckerd Community Alternatives and the Hillsborough County Children’s Board

It also gets continued support from the Couch Family Foundation. Last month, the foundation gave a $5,000 check to the program. Foundation VP T. J. Couch says supporting programs that encourage learning as a lifelong process is a key component of the foundation’s mission.

“Every dollar we get helps,” says Sarah Combs, UACDC’s executive director and CEO. “Just that amount alone could help a whole family get back on its feet.”

What makes the STEPS for Success program unique is that participants have a custom-designed plan that addresses their particular situation and where they are in life. 

What works for one individual won’t necessarily work for another, Combs says.

“Our track record is proving that this works,” she says. “And funders are seeing just that. We’re starting to get a good stream of funding because they see this is not a cookie-cutter program.”

Measuring success in real time

Now in its second year, STEPS has worked with more than 100 people (including family units) from late teens to the 60s. According to Martine Dorvil, who oversees the program, it has a 90 percent success rate so far.

“That means the people who came to us in a crisis are no longer in a crisis,” she says. “Maybe they just lost a job, or were in an unsafe housing situation, or couldn’t afford child care so they could work. Our purpose is to keep them from ending up homeless – or even in jail.”

The main criteria, she says, is a willingness to want to do better. Impoverished individuals and families are referred to the program by social workers, case managers and members of UACDC’s Partnership Coalition of more than 70 organizations. They fill out applications, and those who are considered good candidates are then interviewed with an assessments team made up of local health, human and social service providers.

Once accepted into the program, the participants will then work with staffers in identifying obstacles that hinder progress, such as a lack of training or education, or transportation to get to a job. Each client is assigned “navigators” to help work with the system and get better results.

“Our society is built for the middle class,” Dorvil says. “Every human being, rich or poor, has the same needs and wants – home, security, protection for children. The difference is, low-income people often don’t have access to those things.”

Ortiz believes she was helped in the nick of time.

A lack of motivation and a few failed grades landed her at the Bowers-Whitley Career Center in Tampa where she was earning her high school diploma. One of the school employees saw something special in Ortiz and urged her to take advantage of the STEPS program to get direction with her future. 

“I wasn’t sold on it at first. But the more she egged me on, the more I realized I want to change my life and succeed,” Ortiz recalls. “I really didn’t have a plan on how to make that happen.”

Putting education to practical use

In a year’s time, Ortiz has made significant progress with her navigator’s help. She’s now enrolled at Hillsborough Community College and will soon start the process of picking a university to finish her education. She’s looking at both University of South Florida and out-of-state schools – “something I never would have considered before.” She worked as a camp volunteer last summer, which exposed her to a work environment and gave her self-confidence. 

Now she’s in the process of applying for a paid internship with the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts which will allow her to pursue her passion of performing, dancing and acting. One day she hopes to use her theatrical experience in a community center that provides outreach to kids who don’t have access to the arts. 

Ortiz, who still lives at home, says the support system provided by STEPS for Success keeps her on the right track with making good decisions and accountability for her actions. 

“Things just don’t fall into place. You have to set goals and do the work to make it happen,” she says. “Before STEPS, I didn’t even know where I wanted to be in life. Now I’ve got a plan and trustworthy people to back me up.”

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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