Carson Tours EnVision, Empowerment Centers

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – With the Youngstown City School District conducting all classes remotely, ensuring students get the support they need is “absolutely crucial” to their educational success, said Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

“If a child gets three months or six months or even a year behind, it has a dramatic impact on the rest of their lives,” Carson said Oct. 15 outside the Rockford Village EnVision Center in Youngstown. “I think that’s something that some people don’t understand.”

The situation isn’t as severe for students in affluent areas because they have access to broadband and high-speed internet, the HUD secretary said. In low-income areas, particularly among minority populations, the assistance is critical because students aren’t able to access that infrastructure in the schools.

“In a lot of communities like this, those things don’t exist. And this helps to fill the gap,” he said.

Carson joined community leaders in a tour of the Rockford Village EnVision Center, launched in June 2018, and the neighboring Center for Community Empowerment.

Rather than simply provide a government housing option for residents in need, the EnVision Center is designed to “take a holistic approach going way beyond brick-and-mortar, and really investing in people and helping them realize their potential,” Carson said.

The center and its partners offer child care, counseling sessions, community programming, meals before and after school, a computer lab and a re-entry program for residents returning from prison, which is spearheaded by United Returning Citizens.

To fulfill its mission, the center introduced an educational support assistance program to help families and students with remote learning, as well as an entrepreneurship program for adults and children.

Ultimately, Carson said, the goal is to provide necessary supports and service in a central location to help residents “stand on their own” and break the cycle of dependency. Such services include education, job training, financial literacy and mentoring.

“EnVision centers were derived from the belief that HUD’s true measure of success is not how many people are in government programs, but how many we can get out of programs and onto a road of self-sufficiency,” he said.

“The center fully recognizes that education is the key liberator from dependency,” he continued. “You can be born in the worst ghetto, born in the most remote farm in Appalachia. But if you get a good education, you write your own ticket.”

Typically, the EnVision Center serves some 60 to 70 students. The pandemic, however, reduced that number to about 30 over the summer, said Kathy Hammond, community outreach specialist. Currently, the center serves 10 students through the remote learning assistance program, she said.

The center would like to expand the program, she said. But with only two large rooms in the building, “we have to be really careful” and abide by the guidelines set by the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have had to slice the program down considerably,” she said. “We were fortunate and blessed that we didn’t have any COVID cases.”

Over the last year, HUD has opened 62 EnVision centers across the United States, and is on pace to open about one weekly. “That is actually starting to accelerate,” Carson said.

Individuals who have entered the programs, including single mothers, are receiving needed child care while earning their GED diploma, “or even higher degrees,” he said.

The mother can then become independent and pass that learning experience on to her children “so we break the cycles. Over the last several decades, we’ve been increasing the cycle of dependency,” Carson said. “We want to start breaking that cycle.”

Students are enrolled in Youngstown City Schools and attend the all-day program at EnVision on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Hammond said. Staff help students with their work and feed them breakfast and lunch.

The center is launching an entrepreneurship program for children in partnership with Youngstown State University, in which students will start their own businesses and the center will pay for the incorporation of LLCs and employer identification numbers, Hammond said.

“We’re buying equipment, press machines, embroidery machines. All of that will be at the center,” she said.

United Returning Citizens is helping with that effort and has seen a few of the adult residents purchase space in the area for businesses, said Executive Director Dionne Dowdy.

URC helps residents to establish limited liability corporations, write a business plan, establish credit, acquire funding and develop products and services.

“The youth are very creative, especially in this pandemic time,” Dowdy said. “Anything that can support and build the economy within the Rockford Village and the EnVision Center – we’re happy to be a part of that.

“We have all this land out here and all the empty buildings,” she continued. “So how perfect would that be if we put some businesses in there?”

Pictured: HUD Secretary Ben Carson tours the Rockford Village EnVision Center with community leaders. Among them are HUD Midwest Regional Director Joseph Galvin (left) and the Rev. Willie Peterson (far right), pastor of the NewBirth Kimmelbrook Baptist Church and executive director of The Center for Community Empowerment.