In 1964, concerned community volunteers secured a grant from the national Community Services Administration to organize a “grassroots” effort to fight the conditions that create poverty and help those living in poverty to become self-sufficient.
In November of that year, those same citizens incorporated as “The Opportunity Corporation of Asheville & Buncombe County” and simultaneously received federal designation as a Community Action Agency (CAA).
Three major events occurred that affect the Agency to this day.
- The first event was an agreement between officials in Madison and Buncombe counties to allow the Agency to apply for funding from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity to support Madison-based initiatives.
- This collaboration led to the year’s second major change. Agency leaders had to restructure the board and change the organization’s name to include Madison County representation. The new name, “The Opportunity Corporation of Madison and Buncombe Counties, Inc.” also reflected the agency’s expanded service area.
- The third key development was the receipt of one of the nation’s first federal grants to operate a summer Head Start Program. The Agency also received support from the Adult and Childcare Food Program to provide healthy lunches and snacks to the Head Start children. Today, the Agency is fortunate to still receive these two program grants.
Head Start program was funded for the full school year. From then through the mid-70s, the Agency spearheaded a variety of rural and urban redevelopment activities for unemployed and low-skilled teens and adults.
Staggering increases in energy prices following the 1973 oil crisis resulted in the Carter Administration’s proposal of the Energy Conservation and Production Act, which Congress passed in 1976. Title VI of the Act created the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), designed to help cut the energy bills in low-income households, the population hardest hit by rising fuel prices. With a focus on senior and disabled citizens, this Title also named Community Action Agencies as the preferred program delivery organization.
For the next several years, the Agency stabilized and matured.
The Reagan Administration proposed a federal budget that substantially cut spending in domestic programs. Congress combined and reduced funding for many local programs. The federal government also sent these combined or “block” grants to the states to administer.
This move from the direct federal funding relationship CAAs had enjoyed for many years to a “pass-through” relationship between CAAs and unknown state administrators, challenged all CAA staff nationwide to quickly learn to navigate and comply with the additional layers of state standards and expectations. Head Start was the only program Congress allowed to retain its direct-federal funding relationship.
In North Carolina, we were fortunate to have a progressive state Office of Economic Opportunity (NCOEO) guiding the CAA network. At the encouragement of the NCOEO, in late 1981, agency fiscal staff prepared the Agency’s first Indirect Cost Plan, and applied for and received, an Indirect Cost Rate Agreement for its management and general expenses.
Finance Director Ethrage Warters recognized the need to automate the accounting system. The Agency procured its first electronic accounting software, the Grants Management Systems (GMS), designed specifically to support organizations like CAAs.
GMS allowed the Agency to merge five bank accounts and convert 15 sets of manual books into one automated accounting system. This automated system marked the beginning of the Agency’s excellence in financial management and reporting – a standard that remains intact today. The system also promoted the most efficient use of limited staff resources and allowed the Agency to reduce or reassign finance staff.
The Agency used the Community Service Block Grant (CSBG) to create the first iteration of a holistic self-sufficiency program, Family Financial Independence (FFI). The Agency also developed several key collaborative agreements with local school systems to support and host Head Start classrooms. These unique agreements utilized school system resources to serve many rural children and allowed the Agency to reduce reliance on, and eventually eliminate, the staff-intensive home-based program design.
The State Energy Office (SEO) received an allocation from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) to operate the Heating/Air Repair and Replacement Program (HARRP) and complement WAP customers with HVAC needs.
mid- to late-1990s
The Agency won a competitive grant award to expand funded enrollment by 90 Head Start children. Under this proposal, the Agency renovated a dilapidated building, owned by the City of Asheville, into a state-of-the-art Head Start Child Development Center featuring an energy-efficient design.
The Agency dedicated this Head Start center, posthumously, to Lonnie D. Burton, the Agency’s executive director for 27 years.
Simultaneous to the completion of the Burton Center renovations, agency leadership initiated a team-based design process for a new agency-owned Program Services Building. During this time, the leadership team also drafted the Agency’s guiding principles for interactions and decision-making.
These principles – Teamwork, Communication, Quality and Respect – remain the foundation for the Agency’s renewed mission and vision.
In September, after 36 years as a renter the Agency took ownership of a team-designed, newly constructed headquarters at 25 Gaston Street in Asheville, N.C. This move marked the physical transition of agency offices from an old, cramped and poorly designed space to one with advanced technology, clean and user-friendly work areas and a variety of meeting spaces. It also marked the transition of the Agency from one that borrowed space from other organizations to conduct routine business meetings to one that offered comfortable, free space to other nonprofit groups.
This decade also became the Agency’s most productive, making us the high-performance, high-quality service organization we are today.
- revamped and strengthened the self-sufficiency program, renamed “Life Works.”
- launched Accountable Results for Community Action, (AR4CA) a database program that tracks and reports customer progress and outcomes.
- initiated an education benefit to pay tuition and books for teaching staff to earn degrees in Early Childhood Development and Birth-Kindergarten (B-K) licensure.
- contracted with an independent researcher to conduct a quantitative and qualitative evaluation of Life Works, which determined the program to be “best practice.”
- commemorated 40 years of service by refreshing our look, logo and changing our name to “Community Action Opportunities.” These changes clearly identified our brand as a Community Action Agency.
- rolled out AR4CA to other agencies in N.C. that were funded by CSBG to support self-sufficiency initiatives, weatherization and heating assistance.
- received strong tri-annual comprehensive federal monitoring reviews of the Agency’s Head Start program.
- became the stewards of the N.C. Training Program for the Family Development Credential for Workers and Organizational Leaders.
- expanded WAP services to Henderson and Transylvania Counties.
We also received a substantial funding increase through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, (ARRA). This funding, designed to stimulate the nation’s economic recovery, also came with significant additional reporting and tracking requirements. Although the ARRA-funded support ended for CSBG in 2010, Head Start received also a modest base funding increase, equal to the amount it received from the ARRA-related funding.
- North Carolina received a funding modification from the U.S. Department of Energy that allowed the NCWAP network to continue until June of 2013, ARRA-funded WAP improvements on single-family units.
- The State Energy Office invited the Agency to be one of three organizations to participate in a public/private pilot project to develop and implement weatherization assistance standards in multi-family complexes. Funded through June of 2013, this Agency was the only one of the three that N.C. WAP allowed to proceed with a second phase of the work. By the end of 18 months, we weatherized and replaced heating systems in 752 multi-family homes.
- 24 of 27 teachers held a degree in early childhood, or equivalent, with B-K licensure.
- Life Works continued as a “best-practice” self-sufficiency program.
- we reorganized our team-based WAP administration, improving the quality of executed fieldwork to be recognized by state administrators as a high-quality program.
Sequestration cuts in our Head Start Program required us to close four classrooms and lay off 11 staff in the Children, Family & Community Partnerships (CFCP) Department. The end of ARRA funding in September of 2013 also required us to lay off employees in the Economic Development Department. At the end of ARRA, the Agency WAP program had completed more units (single and multi-family) than any other program in N.C.
Sequestration cuts were restored. The agency expanded its weatherization service area to include McDowell, Rutherford, Cleveland and Polk counties, making it an eight-county service area.
We were the only agency in N.C. that achieved 100 percent compliance with the CSBG Organizational Standards, national criteria for best-practice operations and customer involvement and outcomes.
Since that time
The governor designated us as the CSBG provider in Henderson, Transylvania and Polk counties, which expanded our self-sufficiency program activities to six counties.
Unlike other CAAs, we continue to focus public attention on our program needs and outcomes and on customer recruitment. We rarely focus on the “Agency” as the umbrella organization. Another unique characteristic is that we refuse to define our leadership and staff job titles by our funding streams. We use team-based approaches to design, implement and evaluate program activities and therefore, achieve high-quality customer outcomes.
Finally, we believe that by providing our direct service staff with a strong agency infrastructure that supports their work, and remaining committed to our agency Principles, Mission and Vision, we will remain the best option for our customers to “transform their lives.”