Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency commemorates 40th anniversary

Published 10:52 am Tuesday, October 5, 2021

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — This month, Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency is celebrating a milestone anniversary.

On Aug. 20, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act, effectively creating a variety of programs to take arms in his “War on Poverty.” This Act established the Community Action Network to help American families and communities overcome obstacles to poverty. More than 1,000 agencies across the country are working every day to create opportunities and transform the lives of their neighbors making communities stronger and helping families across the U.S. thrive.

Beginning Oct. 1, SMCAA will be commemorating 40 years of servicing those in need across southwest Michigan. The agency was established in 1982 to wage war on poverty in Van Buren County by promoting self-sufficiency for those of limited income, ensuring that all residents are able to live in dignity, implementing innovative and cost-effective programs to improve the lives and living conditions of the impoverished, providing support and instruction for everyone in need of assistance, and being a major voice of reason in establishing welfare system reforms. In 1986, the agency was incorporated and began providing human services to both Cass and Van Buren Counties. In 1992, Berrien County was officially added to its service delivery area.

For 40 years SMCAA has been dedicated to helping the low-income communities in the tri-county region. “Community Action is successful every day in helping vulnerable individuals move towards economic security. SMCAA is able to use a range of resources and programs to meet the always-changing needs of our communities in a number of creative and impactful ways,” said Executive Director Kimm Smith Oldham.

Today, SMCAA offers more than 20 programs and services that aid the low-income and otherwise disadvantaged residents of Southwest Michigan. Programs include senior and family food commodities, food pantries, emergency assistance (utility, housing, etc.), family homeless shelter, weatherization, and housing rehabilitation.

“Every week is a new challenge,” said Community Services Manager Yvonne Vidt. “Just yesterday SMCAA was called to action by the governor to disburse clean drinking water to the residents of the city of Benton Harbor after reports of high lead counts in the city’s water supply.”

Despite experiencing budget cuts, shrinking resources, and increased demands for services following the economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, SMCAA has continued to make an impact with assisting the low-income individuals and families of Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties, officials said.

“This last year we have witnessed the critical and immediate need for services like rental assistance and utility assistance,” said Operations Manager Ashley Slack. “As an example, during our fiscal year 2020, SMCAA helped 226 households with emergency utility payments. In FY2021, we helped 1,059 households. That’s a 368 percent increase in numbers served.”

Every year, SMCAA serves nearly 5,000 individuals with necessary programs and services. In 2020, the Agency assisted 4,956 unduplicated individuals and 3,293 households with critically-needed services. This assistance included providing 2,047 night stays to families in the SMCAA homeless shelter, 424 rent payments to households facing eviction, and 54,634 food boxes to those suffering food insecurities.

SMCAA’s 40th anniversary offers employees, clients and community partners an opportunity to reflect on the agency’s impact and influence on the lives of those who’ve been served over the years. Looking forward, the future for SMCAA is bright, officials said

“Our staff is committed to the community we serve because it is right, it is wise, and, in our hearts and minds, we truly believe it is possible to conquer poverty. We are Community Action Strong,” Smith Oldham said.