Melanie Weiler recently retired as Executive Director of Kennett Area Community Services (also known as the Kennett Food Cupboard.) When Melanie came to KACS six years ago, it was easy to see that she was the right person to bring the agency to the next level through her passion and vision.
She tells how she lives life paying attention to the serendipity that is playing out and she smiles widely when she says, “When I see it; I go for it!” In 2013, she was shopping in Walmart and saw a man, pushing a shopping cart, who was obviously homeless with his unshaven beard, shabby clothes and body odor. It was January and she could see that he had come inside to warm up. “Here we are, the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania and have all these resources and there is this man!”
She realized that homelessness existed in Southern Chester County, and it needed to be addressed. She went back to her YMCA job, which she had held for 16 years and told a coworker that she wanted to address this need. That coworker told her of the opening at KACS and she knew in her heart that this was the serendipitous call she was hearing.
Melanie spent the first year at KACS learning about the many Chester County resources, as well as about the history and mission of KACS for their 60th anniversary.
She is fast to say that Bill Buffington, the founder, did more than organize the distribution of Christmas food baskets for many years. He often had low-income community members sitting at his table developing a budget to help them make ends meet. He saw the potential that community mentoring could turn the tide for some who were living on the edge. Melanie brought this vision to the board in 2014, when they developed their first strategic plan.
Melanie was one of the original Southern Chester County community organizers to bring together a collaborative to address homelessness. Her comment: “The community doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.” She tells the story of one homeless man, who folded his clothing to make creases in his pants, so he wouldn’t look disheveled and appear homeless. His car was his home. She adds, “Homelessness in Southern Chester County looks different than urban homelessness.”
Beyond taking on the cause of homelessness. Melanie and her board saw the importance of searching out best practices in dealing with poverty. 2015 was dedicated to reviewing programs in Florida, Texas, New York City, Canada, etc. and serendipitously they found the best model for Kennett was right next door in Lancaster, PA—Bridges Out of Poverty. Melanie Weiler and board member, Bob George attended the National Conference on Poverty, which reaffirmed the decision to go with the Bridges Out of Poverty model as a way to start moving to another agency level.
The Bridges Out of Poverty framework holistically addresses how to have a good community quality of life. It works from a triple lens framework: The individual---Getting Ahead workshops, which help persons in poverty learn about 11 Resources that help them access, expand, and develop. The institutional---Bridges Out of Poverty workshops, which educate all sectors of the community about economic class values and the importance of becoming partners in solving poverty.
Finally, the community – through collective impact when community partners come to the table, without personal agendas and develop a collective vision with the commitment to a long-term community investment. This group – the Opportunity Network, is now leading this effort.
Melanie has been a strong visionary and an inspirational leader. She is a Bridges Out of Poverty trainer herself and plans to continue to provide trainings, as she leaves KACS. She is a true leader in the sense of empowering other community entities to become invested and involved. She continues to emphasize; “It takes a myriad of programs and close, close collaborations.”
When I asked Melanie, what will it take to end food insecurity and homelessness, she responds: “Helping low-income families balance their budget and when the income isn’t enough, then pursue further resources or employment that pays more. Persons in poverty live in the “tyranny of the moment” and with community support, they learn the value of setting goals and planning. Housing costs are still a great issue. This is a community issue that continually needs to be addressed. Overall, I believe that we are making progress. When our Getting Ahead workshop participants join for monthly meetings, they continually give ideas to each other and help each other see new possibilities for staying sustainable. It also has been important that they are at the community planning table. Ultimately, it is all about relationships and community collaborations and investment” And, if you are Melanie Weiler, always paying attention to timing and serendipity!