The mission of the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network (SCCON) is so perfectly aligned to this moment—when a global health crisis is threatening the lives and livelihoods of so many—that it might seem like the entire SCCON initiative was a response to the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic.
It was not.
The origins of the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network can actually be traced back five years when a diverse group of people saw a need to take a collaborative approach to addressing poverty and all its impacts on local residents and families. Several nonprofit leaders in the area started considering what could be done to move beyond the same quick-fix solutions to help local residents. As a growing number of people came together, the initiative started to take shape, and eventually the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network was born.
According to Kate Daneker, the director of social initiatives for Square Roots Collective, the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network is not a group, but rather a collective that bases its work on the Bridges Out of Poverty framework, and involves bringing people together from every sector and socioeconomic class to solve problems together that none of them could take on alone.
At a public meeting that took place virtually on Oct. 20, SCCON highlighted some of the work that has been done—especially efforts aimed at helping southern Chester County families who are struggling as a result of the pandemic.
Food cupboards and emergency housing programs continue to see unprecedented requests for help as families find it more challenging to meet basic needs.
Leah Reynolds, the executive director of Kennett Area Community Service (KACS), summarized the current status of the ongoing efforts to provide assistance by saying that the good news is that good work is being done here in Chester County, but the bad news is that needs continue to outpace the help that is available. KACS is always on the front lines when it comes to helping people who are struggling financially, and the pandemic has seen a stark rise in the number of families who are struggling to meet their basic needs. Reynolds said that an alarming number of people in Chester County are tottering on the edge of a financial cliff.
“It’s not hundreds of people,” she said, “it’s thousands of people.”
Daneker explained, “The need in our community has been exacerbated by COVID. The need is there and it is growing. It is not going away.”
Collaboration has been key during the response to the pandemic. Local youth centers and family and educational programs, and other organizations that do not typically provide basic needs services have been collecting and distributing essential items to their struggling participants. This is just the kind of collaboration that was hoped for when the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network was founded.
Daneker is joined on the SCCON planning team by a diverse group of community leaders including Leah Reynolds, the executive director of the Kennett Area Community Service, Carrie Freeman, the CEO of the United Way of Southern Chester County, Jim Mercante, a retired business owner, Rachel Lebus, the executive director of the Oxford Neighborhood Services Center, Fran Lutz, a financial consultant, and Steve Doutrich, the associate pastor of Waterway Church.
One of the challenges for the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network or any nonprofit serving this area is making people aware of the needs that exist in the community. Chester County is comparatively wealthy, but there are still many people in the area who need help. This is especially true during the pandemic.
SCCON has been focusing efforts on housing, transportation, and education.
One significant initiative in the months since the pandemic started has been bringing together school districts with community partners to develop creative solutions to unprecedented challenges that have arisen during the health crisis.
Virtual learning has been especially difficult for some families in the area. Sometimes, young children are either home alone or are left with an elderly relative or neighbor who is unable to navigate the online school system. Unsupervised children either can’t log on or can’t stay focused throughout the school day.
Subsidized daycare spots are limited at local facilities, and other private daycare options are cost-prohibitive for some families.
Additionally, some homes are still waiting for Internet connections despite what Daneker described as the heroic efforts by school districts to meet the needs of all residents.
At the meeting, Holiday and Mercante talked about some of the work that the Education Discovery Group has been doing to bring the various partners together to meet the needs of local students. They have focused on educating parents about the resources that are available to help them.
In some cases, learning pods were established—these are safe, supervised community spaces where local volunteers can offer extra support to vulnerable students.
They have also been working to help any families that are struggling to provide Internet connectivity for children in the household.
Mercante said, “We believe Internet access is an educational right. We will pursue this with vigor.”
With regard to housing, there has been an effort to work collaboratively to establish mediation processes that are fair and equitable for both landlords and tenants so that families can remain in their homes during these difficult times. There has been an ongoing effort to raise awareness about the need for more affordable housing in the area.
SCCON also has a Transportation Discovery Group that has worked to increase access to transportation resources through research, communication, and improvement projects.
The meeting concluded with a call to action—SCCON is always in need of having more people involved with the various Discovery Groups. They also need to expand the network. It’s the only way that needs in the community will be met.
“This is all about collective action,” Freeman said. She explained that the awesome nonprofits have pivoted and made adjustments to respond to COVID-19. She quoted Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist, who once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
In the face of the pandemic, the work is more urgent than ever. While much has been accomplished, there is still much to be done.
“We need your help,” Reynolds said.
The next meeting of SCCON will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
To learn more about the work of the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network, including how to help in response to COVID-19, visit www.sccnetwork.org
The Southern Chester County Opportunity Network is hosting a virtual Bridges Out Of Poverty Workshop on Friday, February 5 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
More information is available at www.sccnetwork.org.
Bridges Out Of Poverty is a framework that equips communities, organizations, and individuals with strategies and tools for addressing poverty in a comprehensive way. It brings together people from all sectors and economic classes to reduce barriers and build access to resources for those in poverty to build a sustainable community where everyone can live well.