It wasn’t long ago that a woman with little means moved from New Jersey to Anne Arundel County. Reportedly, she had one bag of possessions, the clothes on her back, and no plan. Through help from the Arundel House of Hope and a chance meeting with an employee at the Community Action Agency who directed her to the agency’s housing department, the once down-on-her-luck woman had a job and funds to cover her rent and settle into a new home.
Celebrating 55 years, the Anne Arundel County Community Action Agency has long become known for etching out a pathway to success for the disadvantaged. And despite the pandemic, the agency has continued to carry out its mission to empower individuals by reducing poverty and building resilient communities.
“The pandemic has demanded that we do almost everything new,” said the agency’s CEO, Dr. Charlestine Fairley. “We decided to equip all of our essential staff by putting the appropriate equipment in each of their homes so that we could work from home at the very beginning of the pandemic.”
Dr. Fairley said the agency was forced to lay off some employees, but ultimately rehired them.
“We didn’t miss a beat in providing services,” Dr. Fairley remarked. “As time passed and we were able to bring back the laid-off staff, we equipped their homes as well with computers, printers, telephones, and some with scanners so that we could continue to work.”
Remarkably, the agency’s work and efficiency increased during the pandemic, and Dr. Fairley credited the forward-thinking and immediate action the agency took at the start of the pandemic.
“We are operating as a brand new agency,” she stated, jokingly adding that the agency may consider always working remotely. “We need to be in the office so we can meet our clients face-to-face,” Dr. Fairley exclaimed. “We miss that. [But] we do have the means to receive applications and talk to our clients on Zoom and the telephone. But, in terms of work and meeting their needs, we are fully equipped to do that remotely.”
The agency has received numerous awards and citations from local, state, and federal officials for its anniversary. Each noting how the agency has helped so many change lives. For instance, those participating in the agency’s workshops for first-time homebuyers work one-on-one with counselors who help them achieve their goals.
The agency’s website provides an example of a single woman with grown children who recently contacted a counselor about finding a home and utilizing a down payment from the Maryland Mortgage Program. The woman lived in subsidized housing paying $1,300 monthly in rent. She attended one of the agency’s workshops, and within two months, her credit score improved enough to qualify for a mortgage.
Late last summer, an Early Head Start family of four was diagnosed with COVID. Agency staff shopped for the family and provided necessary supplies during their quarantine.
“We are getting a lot of support at this time because people are aware there is a great need,” Dr. Fairley said. “The pandemic really did shine a light on the needs in our state, and government at each level has been efficient in trying to meet those needs. We’ve had an infusion of funds from every level. We’ve had enough funds during the pandemic to meet our clients’ needs and there’s been an abundance. During this period, we’ve not turned away anyone.”
Dr. Fairley, who once served as dean of Sojourner-Douglass College says that she is proud of the relationship she has always enjoyed with the community action agency.
“I’ve always worked in the community and always had a relationship with the agency,” Dr. Fairley said. “[At Sojourner-Douglass], we provided space for the agency to conduct workshops. We trained all of the [Head-Start] teachers in the tri-county area. When I was hired, I said it would be for six months, but some of the agency staff started advocating for me and told the board they didn’t need to look for anyone else. I won’t be here [55 years from now], but we’ve done great work.”