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Action agency paves way for families to achieve their goals

BRADENTON — Stephanie and Aldo Martinez look ahead and see themselves five years from now.

Stephanie, 20, wants to be finishing her advanced degrees in psychology so she can open a clinic.

Aldo wants to be a teacher, helping third- or fourth-graders learn.

But the road ahead is long for the young couple, who earn just enough to keep a roof over their heads, leaving little to pay for college.

They are among the first enrollees in Manatee Community Action Agency’s new Family Self Sufficiency Program, and are now on a path designed to help them achieve their goals.

Financed through a community development block grant from the Florida Department of Community Services, the self-sufficiency program matches eligible participants with financial help and local support programs, said Barbara Patten, the action agency’s new executive director.

“In essence, we become their extended family,” Patten said.

“They are going to help us with our rent, so I can go to school fulltime,” said Stephanie Martinez, who begins her first year at Manatee Community College on Jan. 12.

Enrolled in the two-plus-two program, Stephanie will take her first two years at MCC and then transfer to the University of South Florida to finish her degree.

Aldo Martinez, who was born in Mexico, plans to continue with a landscaping job until his residency papers come through. Then, if the couple can swing the expense, both of them hope to be in school fulltime.

But Aldo said his wife’s goals will come first.

“I want to do whatever I can to help her achieve her career goals,” he said. “She comes first. I want her to succeed.”

The Martinezes have decided to wait to start a family until their goals are achieved.

“We will work with families until they don’t need any kind of subsistence,” Patten said. “We could stay with a family for up to five years, if necessary.”

To qualify, couples or single parents must have completed eighth grade, have an income within 125 percent of the poverty level, be able to work and go to school and be willing to do whatever they need to push themselves forward, said Dian McKinney, the action agency’s director of client services.

Referrals come from Head Start, Healthy Families, Jobs Etc and other programs within the action agency. Anyone can apply, said McKinney. Applicants must attend an orientation. If chosen for the next step, applicants go through an interview process.

Once selected, applicants then complete, with staff help, an assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, McKinney said. Then that resource list is used to develop a long-range plan to achieve the family’s goals.

“We need to make sure people are willing to go for the long haul,” McKinney said.

“The situation for so many people is so staggering with the economic downturn, we felt like we had to take a more bold step than we have in the past to maximize our efforts to benefit families,” Patton said. “We need to do more than help people pay their bills.”

June DeBeum, a family development specialist, will be helping the Martinez family in monthly face-to-face meetings to assess their progress.

“We are really basing our delivery model of services on a strength-based process,” Patten said. “If we can maximize their strengths and give them support, then we can push people forward.”

Acceptance in the new program means a new beginning for the couple, who recently tried to make a life for themselves in Puerto Rico, where Stephanie was born. Her family moved to the United States when she was 3. Soon after she and Aldo were married three years ago, they returned to Puerto Rico to live with Stephanie’s father.

But life was hard.

“We were lucky to earn $5 an hour,” said Aldo, who spent his high school years in Bradenton, graduating from Bayshore High School and Manatee Technical Institute as an automotive technician.

Stephanie started college in Puerto Rico, but financially the couple could not make ends meet. It didn’t help that an unscrupulous attorney bilked them of $3,000 in trying to get permanent U.S. residency papers for Aldo.

Ten months ago, the Martinezes moved back to the Bradenton, where they both have family. This fall, after saving their money, they were able to move into an apartment of their own.

Now as participants in the action agency’s first self-sufficiency program, the couple says they are a fast track to success.

Stephanie and Aldo Martinez understand that their success will mean that, in turn, they help other families along the road to self-sufficiency.

The action agency program is set up so those who succeed become part of the support network for the next group coming in.

“And that’s how it should be all of the time,” said Aldo. “It’s like a circle, like a chain of people helping each other out.”

The second group of participants will be selected after the first of the year, and the action agency plans to set up similar programs in DeSoto and Hardee counties, McKinney said.

For more information on the action agency’s self sufficiency program, call Dian McKinney at (941) 827-0188 ext. 7806

Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at 745-7049.