Saturday, May 16, 2015

Finding Lily’s Place

To address suburban poverty, a metro-Atlanta college student has plans for a new nonprofit emphasizing the social service needs of single mothers and their children.
Lily's Place founder Tina Balestier.

By: James Swift

When Tina Balestier was sworn in as a court appointed special advocate last year, she said it was one of the happiest moments of her life.

“I remember how proud I felt standing in that courtroom with the judge, raising my hand and taking the oath,” the 43-year-old recollected. “I finally got to a point where I could step in and have the power and the education to help.”

Working as a volunteer in Bartow County, a mostly blue-collar suburb 40 miles to the northwest of Atlanta, she recounted an entirely different experience -- this time, while sitting in the waiting room of the local Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) office.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people in there were women,” she said. “There were quite a few who didn’t know how to really correctly go about even applying for food stamps -- they didn’t know who to ask for questions.”

The Marietta, Ga. resident remembered watching one client walk up to the counter, who sought assistance from an office employee. The DFCS representative promptly told her no one was around who could aid her with her problem.

“Just to see that woman walk away when she couldn’t accomplish anything,” Balestier said, “I so badly wanted to, but I couldn’t step in and help.”

The incident, she said, embodied the impersonal nature of the state's social service delivery systems.

“I think the people become more like numbers,” she said. “It isn’t set up for people to succeed ... it's so much easier for people who qualify to be denied when they shouldn't be."

Recently, Balestier said she conducted an experiment. After mailing a benefits request form to DFCS, she said she received a letter asking her to send in a menagerie of documents by a specific deadline or else the application would be denied.

"I was shocked when we did this trial run for the food stamps to get a letter in the mail that says 'you have until this date,' and when I calculated the date, it was actually seven days," she said.

Balestier said she wondered how those with extremely limited resources could assemble the required paperwork in such a short amount of time.

"They need to find a copier, a printer and what if they don't have a car?" she asked. "Going to the post office, if they want to mail it next day to make sure it gets there before the deadline, that's $20. That's a huge amount of money to some people."

Even for those who do get their documents mailed in on time, she said problems are still commonplace.

“I know people who have been waiting seven weeks so far," she said. "They have received letters in the mail saying ‘we’re still in the process.’”

Balestier, a full-time college student pursuing a degree in human services, said she knows the rigors of working-class life all too well. During her childhood, the Ridgewood, N.J. native said her family constantly struggled to make ends meet.

“We were looked down upon for being people who lived paycheck to paycheck,” she recalled. “It really is an eye-opener to realize just how many people could be of privilege and how they would never have to worry a day in their life, never knowing what it was like to not have money for groceries."

While she has had experiences with nonprofit organizations in the past -- among others, she volunteered for a child advocacy group in nearby Cartersville, Ga. -- it was not until late last year that she began mulling the idea of starting her own 501(c)(3).

“Sometimes, you learn things along the way and things don’t click and fall into place until a little bit later,” she said. “Around January or February, my eyes started to open and I just have been solely focused on that ever since.”

From vision to reality

From the time she was a child, Balestier said she has been enamored by the namesake.

“I always thought the name ‘Lily’ was so beautiful,” she said. “It reminded me of something safe … I daydreamed that it was my real name.”

A class project to design a self-help counseling group program, she said, got her thinking about how she would structure social services for single women with children.

The ideal program, she said, would also entail resume writing workshops and offer help to those filing benefits applications online.

Balestier has taken to the World Wide Web to help promote the fledgling
nonprofit, creating an official website and Facebook page for Lily's Place.
“The most needy would get the help first,” she said. “If they don’t have transportation, we’d go to them at a local meeting place, even if it’s a library.”

She said it would also help teens fill out college enrollment papers and financial assistance forms.

“I want to provide those services, too,” she said. “When I was growing up, we couldn’t even afford the application fees and I didn’t have a family who was educated enough to help me look for scholarships.”

She even has the basic layout of a main office in mind.

“It’ll be just one room that is dedicated to any of the group settings, whether its computer learning classes to the counseling group,” she said. “I’ll have my private office to the side, where I will have the private files locked up, and there will be a little waiting area … it’s all going to be subtly decorated, very clean, very orderly and very calming.”

And the name of her hypothetical nonprofit? Naturally, she said she would call it Lily’s Place.

While she said she much planned in the way of programs and services, she said there is one gigantic barrier to transforming Lily's Place into a physical, brick-and-mortar location.

"If I was a wealthy person, I would have an office already," she said. "My ideas are full, I just need money.”

Finding, and funding, hope

Balestier clearly has much faith in the aspiring nonprofit -- she emptied her life savings to get Lily's Place off the ground. 

However, she said attracting investors is difficult since the organization's tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status is still pending. 

"Most people don't want to donate money unless you have that," she said. "I studied how to do it myself, and I even actually wrote [an application] for someone else prior to mine ... I needed to get paid doing that so I could afford to pay for filing my own." 

The 45-page application, she said, is quite daunting at first glance. 

"It was extremely intimidating, but I have gotten past that," she said. "I've realized it's long and it's tedious, but really when you break it down, it's kind of simplified." 

The real challenge, she said, is finding the funding to formally apply for a 501(c)(3) designation.

"It's $400 to apply if you don't think your company is going to have more than $10,000 and it's actually $850 to apply for anything over $10,000," she said. 

She said she hopes to have official certification by summer's end. As soon as her organization receives tax-exempt status, she said she is ready to start mailing out grant applications. She also said she would like to plan a fundraising event for the fledgling nonprofit shortly. 

“By the end of the year, I really hope that I will be looking into real estate and an actual, physical location," she said. "In the meantime, I will begin working on my own and hope to have at least one other volunteer at that point.”

She said she is willing to provide her own services sans a paycheck. To recruit volunteers, she said she would like to strike up an internship arrangement with Kennesaw State University. Bilingual students and those with previous social services experience, she said, would make for ideal candidates.

The service area for the nonprofit, she said, would cover three metro-Atlanta counties; her home county Cobb and surrounding counties Bartow and Cherokee. 

“I happen to live in an area of Cobb County where you can almost see a physical line divided between the people who have money and the people who don’t,” she said. "Almost everyone in the area near me that is living in lower-income housing apartments are minorities." 

While she is still contemplating the address for Lily’s Place, she said she wants it to be a “no-fuss building” closer to the suburban and rural portions of the service area. 

“As I take my dog for a walk and I pass by these huge, expensive office buildings and high rises, to me, that is not the place where someone who is having money issues would feel comfortable walking in,” she said. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have money and those kinds of places made me feel out of place … I don’t want anyone to feel out of place.”

As far as marketing, she said she would largely rely on word of mouth advertising. She has already designed informative brochures about the nonprofit, and has asked local businesses to display them in stores. She said she has also talked to two regional nonprofits about setting up an arrangement to refer families to Lily’s Place for additional assistance. 

While she has done her homework on large corporations in the area that could serve as potential donors, she said she is more likely to look at partnerships with smaller local companies, who wish to make a direct impact on their own communities. 

"I really want it to be the only thing I do for a living, and not for the money,” she said. “I can’t imagine I am going to get wealthy off of it, but that isn’t the purpose … I just want it to be the place I go to everyday."

‘Somebody needs to do something’

It has not been easy, she said, balancing the nonprofit with her course load. “I actually became ill from the stress,” she said, “there are three medications I have to take every day just to help heal my body.”

Despite her own hardships, she said Lily's Place remains a crucial undertaking and a goal she will relentlessly pursue. 

While there are many nonprofits that help link families to social services, Balestier said there are few organizations dedicated to helping those in need overcome the barriers that obstruct them from acquiring those same services. 

“I know there are agencies out there that can refer somebody to get food stamps, but there aren’t any I have come across that thought about what it could be like for particular people, with the interference they may have,” she said. “I didn’t want these people to fall through the hole … I needed to come up with one of my own, that covered all those bases.”

Without access to things like transportation and computer literacy skills, she said many individuals who require benefits are simply left unable to apply for them. She said she selected a start-up organization over an existing nonprofit because it gives here more leeway to specifically address problems of the like.

“I feel like this particular niche isn’t covered,” she said. “Your views and the way you want something to run doesn’t completely go the way you want it to if you leave it in someone else’s hands to manage.” 

Running her own nonprofit, she said, also allows her to get to know clients on a deeper level. 

“I try to envision a place that is personal, a place where they would know that every concern would be addressed,” she said. “Clients can gladly just walk into it anytime … even if they couldn’t have an answer, there would be someone available to them.” 
While she said she is still focused on obtaining a degree, finishing school is a secondary concern to bringing Lily’s Place to life. 

“I know changes have to be made regarding many things, even if it something like simplifying an application process or making the deadline longer so these people will have time to get everything in,” she said. “There is so much more I need to learn before I know what it is exactly that I will be fighting for … but I have no fear in doing that, because I feel like somebody needs to do something.” 

Uncommon Journalism, 2015.

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