The Phoenix Family Difference

by KELSEY CIPOLLA  | photos courtesy of PHOENIX FAMILY

There are no cookie-cutter solutions at Phoenix Family. Instead, staff is on site working on thoughtful, personalized solutions for residents every day at the 35 properties the organization partners with in service of Phoenix Family’s mission: Empowering people living in low-income housing communities with the support they need to gain stability and achieve self-sufficiency.

“What that means for each of our individual residents can be very different, because one of the things we really pride ourselves on is that we are meeting people where they are, and that can be a high level of self-sufficiency, or it could be they were previously homeless or near homelessness,” says Executive Director Kimber Myers Givner.

Residents are facing steep challenges. In the Kansas City area, the wait for affordable multi-family housing is two to three years, and the average yearly income of the households Phoenix Family serves is $6,900, well below the federal poverty level for even an individual.

When people move into a residential community that Phoenix Family serves, they become eligible for the organization’s services, which are facilitated by an onsite coordinator. In multi-family communities, the heads of the household may need helping furnishing their new apartment, developing career skills to help them find a job or get a better job, learning about financial literacy, or finding a path to getting their GED. Phoenix Family also provides home education, which covers subjects like housekeeping and parenting.

For kids, Phoenix Family offers a free literacy-based after-school program called HIKE. Children who enter the program are tested in five core areas and receive a curriculum specific to their needs. An onsite reading specialist and volunteers work with kids on the areas that need improvement. The program also supplies participants with a meal.

In senior living communities, programming is focused on balanced living, which includes mental and physical health, providing residents with home help services and helping them navigate Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Every site has blood pressure and blood sugar screenings once a month in case people aren’t able to get to their doctors, and fresh produce is delivered monthly, since many communities are in food deserts, and seniors may not have access to transportation.

If it sounds like Phoenix Family works on an almost staggering number of fronts to help residents, it’s because that’s what is required, Myers Givner says.

“I wish there was one thing that if everybody did it, he or she wouldn’t be in poverty, but it’s a multitude of factors,” Myers Givner explains.

Over her 20 years with the organization, Myers Givner says she’s met many residents who she could relate to, people who were successful and then lost everything.

“One of the things overall that I wish people knew was that nobody wants to live in poverty. It’s not something somebody really chooses,” she says. “At many times, choices might lead to that, but a person also may have not been equipped from the very beginning either from an education standpoint, from a professional standpoint, a literacy standpoint, to have those tools in his or her toolbox to be successful.”

And although we might not notice it, poverty exists in our own backyard, Myers Givner says, noting that Phoenix House has communities throughout the metro, including in Johnson County, as well as in Iowa.

In total, Phoenix Family serves 6,000 residents each day, despite having an annual budget of only $3 million and 57 employees across all program sites as well as in the home office. Because of the organization’s small staff size, volunteers play a vital role.

“Volunteers are so critical to the success of our programs, not only on the youth and the family side, but also the senior side,” Myers Givner says.

Volunteers are given the chance to help the organization in a way that fits with their personal interests and goals and work directly with residents so they get to see firsthand the difference their efforts make. Those personal connections between volunteers, staff, and residents are a big part of what makes Phoenix Family successful. Relationships often continue even after residents move out and move on, allowing Phoenix Family to see how they go on to thrive.

Myers Givner warmly recalls watching one of the kids she worked with early on in her career give a commencement speech at her graduation. Others check in, telling her about buying homes, graduating college, and their other adventures.

“Those successes, that we’re connected to people even after they’ve exited poverty, that is amazing,” she says. “A lot of programs are very temporary and very transitional. I think what’s unique about Phoenix is that we’re so invested in their lives on site, that even when they’ve left the property, we continue those relationships.”