Alonso Bess and Bett

First City Forum on Nov 8th

Listen to the interview!

We had the opportunity to go on KTKN’s First City Forum last week and talk with Michelle O’Brien about the Community Connections endowment fund, our wide array of support services, and the origin story of Community Connections.

If you missed the conversation, not to worry! You can still listen on the Ketchikan Radio Center website.

Michelle O’Brien (host)

Hey everyone, First City Forum! Michelle here on a soaking wet Friday. Holy cow. Well, we asked for rain, we’re certainly getting it. And the fine folks over at Port and Harbors would like to remind everyone to go down and check on your boat. It’s no fun when you show up at your little harbor spot and your boat is nose first in the water, however that works. Just go and check on it. They called us and they’re begging people to go check on it. We got some friends from Community Connections in the house today. And you may have been hearing about their endowment fund. Endowment funds can be confusing. We have endowment for this, endowment for that. And what does that mean? I don’t get it. What does that mean, Bess Clark?

Bess Clark (Community Connections Executive Director)

Well, what’s exciting for Community Connections, it means long term sustainability for our services at Community Connections. We’ve had many cuts through the years, the last five years, in particular, through all of the financial crisis of our state. So, it was our board of directors who decided for sustainability of our services, we needed to form an endowment fund, and that means for the long term. It’s there forever.

Michelle (1:28)

Let’s talk about that for a minute. Because sometimes they talk about endowment funds for building a new building, or something along those lines, but this is actually something that is going to affect a lot of people in the community. Because Community Connections serves a number of different sub-communities, meaning various demographics, for example, Monday is Veterans Day. You all serve veterans as well.

Bess 

We absolutely do. We help veterans stay in their home as long as possible, veterans that need support to stay in their own home, that’s our newest service. We are very honored to be able to serve veterans in our communities of Ketchikan and on Prince of Wales.

Michelle

You can take that one step further even, and say that it’s not just necessarily the veterans that you are serving. Maybe someone is a disabled vet. And I understand that you work with the VA, but they have a full time caregiver. So you’re actually serving the caregiver, kind of giving them a break as well, right?

Bess

Yes. So if a veteran has a spouse, we could offer respite services if that vet needs personal care assistance with meal preparation, with going to the bathroom, with going out and shopping, those kind of in-home supports. Washing his or her kitchen floor. That’s the kind of services that we offer.

Michelle

Yeah I think a lot of people don’t necessarily take pause to stop and really contemplate how difficult it is to be a caregiver. We had the folks from hospice on the other day, they were talking about part of their role is to give caregivers a break. It’s a daunting task for many people. I mean, you’re talking 24/7, it isn’t like you go to an office between nine and five.

Bess (3:20)

It can be very intensive to be a caregiver for that 24/7, and those caregivers really need breaks. Oftentimes, it really affects their health to be this full time caregiver. So really, for several hours, we serve people 10 hours a week, 20 hours a week, it depends upon the individual and what their needs are. And many times we get connected to these veterans or to seniors, and when we start out, it’s just a few hours a week, but as their health deteriorates, we’re there for them. And we often work with hospice when individual seniors want to stay in their own home and pass away. We join with hospice to help when that happen. So many people in the community don’t know those kind of services from Community Connections.

Michelle 

Community Connections is working with students as well, right?

Alonso Escalante (board member)

That’s true. I mean, as I’m listening to you guys, I’m thinking really, if you’re a human being on Prince of Wales or in Ketchikan, the likelihood of getting support from Community Connections is extremely high. At some point in your life. And if it’s not you, then it’s someone you love.

Michelle

Wait, wait a second, I just thought of an example. If you go grocery shopping at Safeway, I believe that’s the store, and you have no person with disability in your life of any sort. And you are not a caregiver. But if you’ve been shopping at somewhere like Safeway as well as served at other places of business around town, you actually have been served by someone that’s involved with Community Connections, correct?

Alonso

That’s right.

Michelle

Because what I really think is cool, I’m going to say this wrong, so please forgive me. But the program and I believe Lance Haynes works in it, right, where, where he does job training, right. So putting people to work and being able to have a living wage and actually have a career is, I think, really, really cool

Bett Jakubek (board member)

And meaningful work to them. Many communities with folks who have developmental disabilities, it’s maybe a sheltered workshop or it’s kind of fitting, it’s having those folks meet a job requirement. This way, what Community Connections does across the board is really tailor the services to the person, and what their needs are. And same thing with the job placement. It’s something they’re interested in doing, and wanting to do, it’s meaningful work for them. And it’s a living wage, like you say. So it’s a win-win for everyone.

Michelle 6:09

This is a long term program that actually has been highly successful if I remember correctly.

Bett

How many we’ve got employed now, it’s over 50? Right?

Bess

Not so many recently. During the summer, it’s more. But I think quite honestly, not to brag, but to brag, we are the best at really doing job placement, making that fit for an adult who has disabilities. Lance and his group really does a great job of working with employers. We have fabulous employers in Ketchikan and on Prince of Wales who are really open to hiring people with disabilities and it’s long term. They make great employees because once it’s a good job fit, they’re there forever.

Michelle

What’s the longest term person that you’ve placed? How long have they been in that position?

Bess

Well, there was one individual that we have served since the beginning of Community Connections that retired from the Pioneer Home.

Bett

Like full retirement benefits.

Michelle

Oh my god. Yeah. Wow. I didn’t know that.

Bett

We provide tier one full benefits. She’s great. Yeah. And she’s having a happy retirement.

Michelle

Okay, so we’ve talked about veterans, we’ve talked about service to students in the schools. We’ve talked about a little bit about the elderly. We’ll touch on that more later. Anyway, all this, this whole gamut of things. Typically, when you go in a community, you will see one organization serving veterans, one serving, one serving… This is all encompassing almost under one roof.

Bess

We’re a unique nonprofit in the array of services that we offer, birth to elderly services, you won’t find another agency like Community Connections in the state.

Bett 8:00 

Or even really down south. I got to go to school to get a degree in nonprofit management and development. And I used Community Connections kind of as a case in a couple different classes. And Portland is the nonprofit capital of the world, I think, and nobody had anything similar. This organization could be four, at least four other nonprofits individually, but it’s the most respectful, I think, fiduciary, is that a word fiduciarily? Fiscally responsible. To have an administrative umbrella that actually serves four different programs. And they are rock stars. The folks in that department that take care of the billing and the coordination and all the things that go on for that, and it’s, it really is such a great model for a community of our size that I believe should be replicated in other places, but we really have kind of hit the nail on the head. So I’m pretty proud.

Michelle

But because of some state cuts and federal cuts, being good stewards, this kind of meant that the board had to sit down and take a look forward and say, we need to continue serving our communities of Prince of Wales and Ketchikan. How do we go about doing that effectively? Because I think due to the nature of the service that Community Connections provides, you just can’t be there one day and gone the next and then come back the next year. “When things are good, okay, we’ll be here, when things are bad, sorry, can’t do that.” Because this is a service that you offer that’s very dependent on longevity. Am I correct in that?

Alonso

Yeah, that’s right. And, the endowment fund when we talk about it being there forever and using the interest, but it’s not all of the interest. Part of the interest goes back so that the whole endowment fund continues to grow. But this year, for example, we use part of the earnings from the endowment fund to support services and when we’re making those decisions, it’s with people in mind. I mean, you know that this is going to real people here in our community. And so it’s important to, if you have the ability to donate to the endowment fund knowing that you’re helping to support people in Ketchikan, on Prince of Wales, in perpetuity forever.

Michelle

Well, okay, and let’s go back to this, this. I don’t know this kind of this word, or the connotation of the word endowment fund, right? Because endowment fund makes me feel like I need to sign over my whole retirement or, it has to be some big money give. That’s not true. That’s not true at all. It can be tiny, you give whatever you want, right?

Bett

What we’re looking for are folks that will sustain us for a long time, so it’s everyone doing the piece that they can do. So if you’re wealthy, we would love for you to make a donation every year. But if you are even a student, being able to give whatever you can, $10. This year, if you make any donation to the endowment, you become a legacy donor for our organization. And we’ll be working really hard to stay in touch with you, and stay connected and keep, keep you informed about what’s going on with our organization and how your dollars are being spent.

Michelle

I think that that was an important thing to note. Because unfortunately, when you mention an endowment fund, people think big bucks. Right? Right. They just do and that’s not what’s necessary. What do you see Bess in the future, I’d like to know what are the goals for the endowment fund over the next couple of years, obviously, is to be able to sustain the service through it or like, really, let’s be frank, weather this possible storms of any future budget cuts that’s both federal and at the state level. But what do you see in terms of a monetary goal that that Community Connections is kind of shooting for? \

Bess

Or are you asking to build on current funds? The sky’s the limit. I think for us, it’s also getting those long term, for this year, it’s the legacy donors. So this would be great if we could reach I think $50,000 this year. But long term, it’s also, I think there is many people that are retiring in our community and for them to think about leaving us in their estate. Now, that could lead to long term, really viability.

Michelle (12:48)

If you were to take a big hit, what would it be to sustain the services as they are right now?

Bess (12:53)

Hmm. We have, because we’re so complex, our budget right now is $11.5 million and I’m hoping that we’ve seen some of the worst cuts. But yes, you’re right, that could… We can’t depend on government for the long term. So it would be wonderful if on a yearly basis, like this year, the board has decided that the interest, we put in our budget for $40,000, that’s going to our senior and disability services because they’ve been hit the hardest. So if we could have a goal of being able, in the interest from the endowment of $100,000 a year, I think that could make a huge positive impact on a yearly basis of what we could do to continue with services.

Michelle

Tell me more, what are the services that are provided to seniors?

Bess (13:53)

It’s in-home supports. So it’s personal care assistance. It’s going out, sometimes it’s grocery shopping, sometimes it’s bathing.

Bett

Companionship, for people who are isolated, so that’s part of it. I can speak to a friend of mine who received care and it made all the difference in the world for his family. His daughter was doing the primary care. He was trying to stay in his own home for as long as he could. But he needed someone in the middle of the day to make sure he ate lunch and took his medicine, and then his family could pick up in the evening and make sure that he had a meal and took his evening meds. But those couple of hours in the middle of the day to play cards, to visit, to maybe even get a shower, that made all the difference and kept him in his home probably at least another year, before he passed.

Bess

That’s quality services, because that’s where that elder wanted to stay. But if you think of it financially – so for $10-$20k a year we can help support seniors stay in their own home and prevent them from going into nursing level of care which is $80k to $100k these days or more. When you think of the Pioneer Home and how much they’re charging. So it’s a huge difference financially.

Michelle

I’ve read several articles and there’s a trend with seniors nowadays that they would prefer to stay in their own home for longer.

Bett

But it’s challenging here in Ketchikan. We get isolated by weather, and what we’ve found is so many elders even get isolated with the technology, they maybe aren’t hearing as well or they can’t remember how to use that piece of technology and so it’s easy to get isolated because of, well, weather like today. They’re not getting out; it’s not safe for them to be walking in slippery or wet conditions. There’s a lot of architectural barriers in this town. If you’re in a wheelchair, you better live straight on Tongass because it’s tough to get anywhere else.

Michelle (16:12)

Good point. I want to ask a question. And I may have asked this before, but I’ve forgotten the answer, so forgive me. But sometimes I’ll go to the Plaza mall, for example. And I’ll see what I think is a Community Connections staff member, or perhaps walking down the street even, a Community Connections staff member personally walking with a person, and it appears to me, and I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but it appears to me that the folks seem to have some pretty challenging disabilities. Is that why they require the individual attention like that? And what is that program?

Bess

That’s usually, you’re talking about individuals with developmental disabilities. We are serving people who have complex medical needs, challenging behaviors and developmental disabilities, dementia, seizures, autism, Alzheimer’s.

Michelle

You brought up Alzheimer’s and dementia. And this is going to be a hard question. Please don’t take it as a negative, but I just know that someone out there is scratching their head wondering this. Why would I support Community Connections, serving people with dementia and Alzheimer’s because the Pioneer Home offers that and there are other entities around that offer that type of care? Why Community Connections?

Bett

Again, if it’s your loved one, number one, they want to stay with you and want to stay at home. And to be able to do that for as long as possible until their care is beyond one person’s ability to do. The supports that we can offer through Community Connections gives respite to the caregiver, so that maybe two or three hours during the day, their person has someone to walk with or someone to do an activity with or even to come into the home and spend time with, because it’s exhausting. And especially if it’s a couple, they don’t want to leave one another. They want to be together. So that’s the deal.

Michelle

I’ve also heard you mention that you also work in conjunction with other nonprofits in the area. The first thing that came to my mind would be someone with a developmental disability perhaps, and the folks over at SAIL. Yes, we collaborate very closely with SAIL. SAIL helps families who might have a child that needs to become eligible. It’s SAIL that helps them get that eligibility with the state of Alaska and then connects with us or other agencies because there’s choices in our community, to get those services. But honestly, there’s a waiting list in this state. So someone with autism, or a developmental disability could wait 10 years to get any services. That’s what’s happened in the last couple years.

Michelle

What we haven’t talked about is the birth part of the lifespan. I mean, here we go. I feel like we’ve been walking through the decades here, people who Community Connections serves.

Bess

So we have the infant learning program, birth to three services. So when a child is born with major medical conditions, or we know because they have a syndrome or genetic syndrome, or we know that they are more prone to having a developmental disability, or it’s someone actually that could even be born that’s premature. That puts a child at risk of having a developmental delay. So, pediatricians quite often will connect or nurses will connect with that family and say, “Hey, you should call our infant learning program at Community Connections” and we have master’s degree early childhood special educators on Prince of Wales and Ketchikan. And we have speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists. They go into families’ homes, and teach the families what they can be doing, to really promote that child’s development. And it really is, it’s the special education program birth to three. And then when a child needs more ongoing support through the school district, they help connect that family to the school district and their special needs preschool.

Michelle

I’ve got personal experience, not through Community Connections. But when my eldest daughter was born in Panama two months early, that is exactly the kind of person that they sent over to the house. And I mean, it was the army. So I think they probably ordered us to have this person come over, I don’t know. But it was so very helpful because the individual was able to work with us, assess possible developmental delays because of prematurity and physically how can we work with her and make sure that she kind of “catches up” if you will. It was amazing. I kind of went in like, “another person coming to the house, they’re making us do this”, but then after a couple of months and subsequent follow ups with greater gaps in between, I found it extremely helpful, extremely.

Bett

I also had a premature child who’s now 38. But at the time, there weren’t the services available. And so we had to fly to Seattle, to be evaluated down at, I think it was called CDMR or something at the University of Washington. And fortunately, she was having a fairly good course. But they would teach me intense things for a couple hour session. And I was supposed to try to replicate those back in Klawock at the time, which is where I was living. It was really isolating and really scary.

Bess

Sometimes families just don’t even really know what their child should be doing at the age of six months. Developmentally, what should they be doing at six months or a year, a year and a half? How many words should they be saying at age two? Those families can call our infant learning program, just call our agency, 225-7825 and our front desk will refer them to the infant learning program. They’ll set up a time to go and do an assessment with this child. Even for families that aren’t sure, they should just give us a call.

Michelle (23:00)

In today’s day and age, people are relatively skeptical about making that initial call. It’s not just a Ketchikan thing. I think it’s a nationwide thing, that “I don’t want to make that call, who’s paying for this? What if my insurance doesn’t …?” So can you explain a little bit about that funding model? I know it varies greatly.

Bess

It does vary according to our services. In infant learning, they have a state and federal grant. So because this is the special education, birth to three, we have a federal grant. And so for those kind of assessments, they don’t have to worry about that. But for ongoing, quite often, if they needed speech therapy or physical therapy or occupational therapy, we would bill their health insurance. That’s why I keep saying we have a billing system as complex as any medical center and maybe more.

Michelle

Right, so then case in point with the endowment fund, using the early assessment grants that you have, if that funding were to go away, you would either have to charge, or the program would go away. Correct?

Bess

Correct. And that’s where the endowment comes in.

Michelle

Let’s just really quick go over, because this is what has just been fascinating to me and I didn’t even know this until three or four months ago. Literally the lifecycle from birth to elderly of who and how you serve them. Here’s your test.

Bess

So it starts with our infant learning birth to three. And then we have children’s mental health services. Quite often it’s infant learning and children’s mental health that work very closely together. So children as young as three and up through age 18. If they have some kind of mental health… they could be depressed. They don’t want to get out of bed. They can have challenging behaviors, oftentimes a classroom teacher will refer families to Community Connections and say, your child’s really, they’re striking out, they’re hitting a peer. And they’re not sure what’s causing it. So again, they come in, there’s an enrollment packet. They’re seen by a therapist and there’s a process. Sometimes children can benefit from short term therapy. Sometimes they need more intensive, ongoing services to support them to stay in their classroom. We have services for children and adults with developmental disabilities, through very young to seniors, and then… the vets, people with physical disabilities and elders, birth to elders. And the job program.

Michelle

Okay, anything else?

Bess (26:00)

We help individuals who can’t find housing, who we’re serving currently, especially our adults with developmental disabilities have found it very difficult in our community to find affordable housing. So we built Opportunity House, which is a supported living apartment complex.

Michelle

I’ve been there, so cool. A great location. I might add, a very convenient location. In case people don’t know, we are somewhat of a transient community, but how was Community Connections started, why, how, when?

Bess

That is a cool story. I get excited about those kinds of things. Our state is such a, it’s a young state, and we didn’t have institutions to close. So in the early 80s, the state of Alaska was looking to really build up community based services and it was Joanna DeSanto and two other community members here in Ketchikan. They had a vision that people could stay in their own home community and get the services that they need. And it was Joanna DeSanto and these two community members that started Community Connections in 1985, with a little grant of $20,000. And it was in the Wells Fargo building downtown. It was a closet. Joanna was the first executive director and the first direct service staff, and she did employment services. That’s how our agency started.

Michelle

That’s so cool. Now, how long have you been the CEO?

Bess

I’ve been with Community Connections 20 years, I’ve been the executive director. So Community Connections has had two executive directors.

Bett

Two fabulous executive directors, I might say.

Michelle

You took the words out of my mouth there. How do people donate to the endowment fund?

Sandra

Well, there’s several options. You can go to our website, which is comconnections.org/legacy. We have a link to donate online and since our fund is actually with the Alaska Community Foundation, they’re the people who manage it, it takes you to their website to donate online. So it might be a little confusing at first. But that’s our fund on there. And you can set up a monthly donation or one time if you’d like.

Michelle

Let’s clarify that for a second. We do have the Ketchikan Community Foundation who do great work, right. But the Alaska Community Foundation, managing your endowment fund, doesn’t mean that when you donate through the website at comconnections.org then their money goes off to the Alaska Community Foundation. There will not be a committee up in Anchorage that’s divvying up this money and giving grants. It all stays with Community Connections. Correct?

Bett

Correct. The Ketchikan Community Foundation also has a fund under the Alaska Community Foundation and the lovely thing is that they are supportive of us and the growth that we have made here in Ketchikan. And so, as a matter of fact, we’re considered one of their legacy donors, and they were granted money when we signed up with our endowment. So the Ketchikan Community Foundation benefited from us becoming a donor. So it’s kind of a win-win.

Michelle

That’s really cool. So some people are gonna want to reach out and talk to someone because they have questions. Who do they call?

Bess

They should call me. Bess Clark at Community Connections. 225-7825. I’d love to talk to them.

Michelle

Some people have, especially if it would be a larger donor, they might have some more in depth questions. And of course, you can always go to the website, the website’s really cool. And follow on social media as well. Good job on keeping that up. Let’s not forget, lots and lots of talk around the community in the last several months and particularly in the last several months, about our local economy. You’re one of the larger employers in town.

Bess

Yes, we continue to be the fourth largest private employer, year-round jobs with benefits, in Ketchikan and on Prince of Wales.

Michelle

How many employees now?

Bess

Over 200.

Michelle

There you go. There you go. So you’re not only helping to sustain the services, but you’re also keeping an economic driver in place as well. All right. Well, thanks for visiting everyone. I appreciate it.

Bess/Bett

Thank you for having us.

 

 

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