Editor's note: Elizabeth Rieth, who is one of the 16 students working on the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry course, also works at The Ball State Daily News as a news reporter.
A new organization headed by Ball State students could stop generational poverty within the Muncie community.
Beneficence Family Scholars is a non-profit organization whose goal is “to help families, particularly single-parent families, get out of generational poverty.”
This objective is completed by selecting families and providing them resources for higher education in hopes of leading them down a path out of poverty.
Lydia Kotowski, president and founder of the organization and junior political science and medallion scholar major in health policy, volunteered at the original Family Scholar House in Louisville, Kentucky, in summer 2018. While she was there, she got to know the staff and families.
During that time, she said one of the kids in the program approached her about going to law school because she knew Kotowski wanted to be a lawyer. Because the resident and her mother were in poverty and abused, she told Kotowski she wanted to become a lawyer to help those in need.
“The fact that that's what a 13-year-old girl is thinking about blew my mind,” Kotowski said.
Kotowski said she saw similarities between Muncie and Louisville in the number of single-parent families and non-traditional families, along with the educational obstacles that come with that.
“The more I got to know how meaningful and impactful education and a true support system can be, the more I wanted to make that something that we have in Muncie,” Kotowski said.
These similarities led Kotowski to contact Jason Powell, vice president of Beneficence Family Scholars and professor of humanities, who has experience studying subjects like generational poverty and social justice.
At the time, Powell had accepted a position as a Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry (VBC) fellow for an immersive learning class, so, after talking with Kotowski, he decided to make the scholars program his VBC course.
Powell said he was "blown away" by the scope of the program which implements education, food, housing and guidance.
On Dec. 14, 2018, Beneficence Family Scholars was incorporated, making it a legal corporation. Now, Kotowski said they are working on an affiliation agreement with the original Family Scholars organization in Louisville, as the organization is the first of its kind in Indiana.
"This is exactly [what I] have been dreaming would be, like, the thing to do here in Muncie,” Powell said.
Currently, the organization has a board of directors and a staff of 16 honors students working on the project for their semester-long honors immersive learning course at the VBC.
These students are creating marketing and branding for the project; designing the website and social media; and researching childcare, food and education.
“There is a fairly significant portion of our population that is not just the traditional family unit and I think that's really important to recognize because different shapes of families have different issues that they face,” Kotowski said.
According to the Indiana Youth Institute’s 2019 Indiana Kids Count data book, Delaware County is ranked eighth out of 92 counties in the state with the number of single-parent families. Along with this, the county is also ranked 18th highest in the number of children in poverty, 17 and under.
Kotowski said the project’s plan is segmented into three phases designed for families to develop into over time: pre-residential, residential and post-residential.
The pre-residential phase will begin this summer and encompass several programs including financial literacy courses, academic support and application help for parents. Kotowski said these programs will be facilitated in rented downtown Muncie office spaces.
Families need to apply for this phase and then are selected based on their experiences within generational poverty.
The only automatic disqualifier for applicants, Kotowski said, is having a debilitating dependency on drugs. Once that addiction has been eliminated, applicants can reapply.
Once the families are selected, there is an orientation, and then parents will learn about financial literacy, applying for FAFSA and Pell grants and making commitments, which will be taught with in-person teaching and online videos and quizzes.
All of these programs are completely free and the only thing the students really need to pay for is the tuition for their education, Kotowski said.
“We think that parents will be empowered to pursue an education and instill a love of education and respect and appreciation for family and their children as well,” Kotowski said.
Once these requirements are fulfilled, the families can enroll in the second phase: the residential program.
This phase has all of the same programming from the last phase, but also enrolls parents as full-time college students while their kids are also going to school.
The project also helps those involved enroll for food services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program and section eight housing to give them access to housing, food and child care.
Kotowski said parents will also have to meet with an academic advisor twice a month and will have a family advocate that will help manage family relationships. She said she wants to make sure these parents are pursuing degrees they are enjoying and passionate in.
Powell and Kotowski said they are hoping to fully develop the pre-residential program by the 2019-20 school year and have four to five families enrolled in school.
In the next year or two, they hope to have some kind of housing complexes or facilities built to accommodate the families and learning community.
Kotowski said the organization wants to partner with different organizations in the community and have met with the Muncie Mission, YWCA and A Better Way. Eventually, she hopes the organization will become a hub for the different resources in the area.
“We don't want to duplicate services or anything that's already being done really well in the community and there's certainly lots of organizations who are doing a fantastic job in their areas,” Kotowski said.
Students working on the project have visited Family Scholars together in Louisville to draw inspiration for the project in Muncie. Stephanie Schlichting, sophomore honors marketing student, met faculty and participants and saw the mission actually being completed.
“It was inspiring because then I knew what our future could look like and what we could achieve,” Schlichting said.
Contact Andrew Harp with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @adharp24.