At first, Maria’s needs seemed pretty straightforward — she needed help finding a job. But after more conversation with Priscila da Rocha, Interfaith Works’ Project INFORM outreach coordinator, it became clear the help Maria trulyÂ needed most was finding safetyâ€”she was living with an abusive spouse and needed to get out.
Slowly but surely, over many meetings, Maria’s trust in Priscila grew until she was able to take steps to find support, safety and a pathway to a new life. Maria still faces challenges, but her life is changing for the better.
Project INFORM is a program made possible with a generous grant from the Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation. It connects low-income Montgomery County residents to a wide array of essential resources. The outreach coordinator, who speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese, meets with clients at the Interfaith Clothing Center in Rockville to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment, gather information to make referrals to appropriate partner providers, and educate clients about available assistance.
Because the program can help residents in crisis try to solve complex problems such as those faced by Maria, INFORM Coordinator da Rocha says, “It is a much deeper experience than handing someone a piece of paper” as a referral for a particular service. Assistance includes information about: affordable healthcare, legal assistance, immigration issues, job training, affordable housing, supplemental nutrition assistance, transportation help and financial management.
The entry point is the Interfaith Clothing Center on Twinbrook Parkway in Rockville, where da Rocha greets those who are shopping to explain what she has to offer and encourage them to meet with her. “They come for the clothes, and then I can help them find other resources they need.”
One of her goals is not just to provide referrals, but to get at the root of their challenges through the in-depth needs assessment, and then empower them to set goals and achieve them. “Part of my job is helping them see they don’t need to stay where they are forever.” She says the path out of poverty can include citizenship, English proficiency and vocational training.
The program is growing, partly due to word of mouth and referrals from community partners, and partly because needs are growing in the county. In fiscal 2013, 347 clients were served. In the past fiscal year, that number grew to 473 people, with many making multiple visits.
Da Rocha, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, feels her education and her experience working for a mental health agency have prepared her to serve those she advises. Living in poverty takes a psychological toll, she notes. “There are so many things about poverty that affect a person’s mental health.” She adds, “There also is an issue of trust” for people who are undocumented or who have had negative experiences living in poverty in a generally affluent area.
Da Rocha says her best days are when she can see as many people as she possibly can, and then hears they have followed through with referrals and gotten help. She sees her job as empowering them to take that next step, whatever it is. “That feels really, really rewarding.”
For more information about Project INFORM, contact Priscila da Rocha, firstname.lastname@example.org, 301.602.9708.