Worker co-ops in state’s poorest region get boost from CCHD

Contributing Writer

Hoping to give a voice and economic power to low-income individuals in southern Illinois, GROW (Grass Roots Opportunities Work-Cooperatives) is an incubator for jobs in high-growth fields with worker shortages. It is intended to aid small businesses from Carbondale to Cairo.

As one of the economic development initiatives funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in the Diocese of Belleville, GROW will be the driving force for opportunities to own and run business co-ops in some of the state’s poorest regions.

The initial service region will include 16 counties (344,594 population) in the southern-most part of the state, including Alexander, Franklin, Gallatin, Hardin, Hamilton, Jackson, Johnson, Massac, Pope, Perry, Pulaski, Randolph, Saline, Union, White, and Williamson, plus Madison and St. Clair counties.

According to Cheryl Sommer, diocesan director of CCHD, GROW highlights the dignity of work.

“They are doing a good job of living out CCHD’s mission of subsidiarity – that people closest to the problem are the ones who know the best solutions.”

GROW’s director Kimberly Guetersloh says the incubator is designed for people to help plan, develop and implement their own way out of poverty. They will be given encouragement, technical assistance and training not previously available to them.

“For the first time, these individuals and their families will be instrumental in determining their own successes and destinies,” Guetersloh said.

“Historically, the residents of this rural region have endured isolated households, low income and low educational levels, high rates of poverty, illness and mortality, and have been largely medically underserved,” she said.

The lack of work for this marginalized population prompted an intervention, Guetersloh said, explaining that a group of non-profit organizers and educators stepped up in 2018 because they were worried about the increasing social divide. They wanted to help create better-paying, family-sustaining jobs.

Additionally, they wanted to stem the alienation, low self-esteem and lack of identity that occurs with long-term unemployment and underemployment.

After much research and consideration, the group decided to create a work-cooperative incubator. They successfully applied to CCHD for funding in November 2019.

Guetersloh said they selected healthcare, childcare providers, hospitality, farming, gardening and assembly services for career pathways.

“These industries are experiencing high growth and have documented skilled worker shortages,” Guetersloh said.

GROW received a $10,000 CCHD Technical Assistance Grant to do a feasibility study and business plan. This is a required first step before they can apply for a national CCHD grant of between $25,000 to $75,000, which they plan to do next funding cycle.

“We have submitted several other grants and are continuously looking for others to write,” Guetersloh said. “In addition, we are looking for alternate resource streams.”

Sommer said GROW is an excellent fit for a CCHD Economic Development Grant because its reach will extend south to Cairo, and it will connect the people Daystar serves with the worker-owned cooperatives and help lighten the load of people that Daystar serves.

Through the Diocese of Belleville, Daystar Community Programs serve the poor, needy and those who have fallen by society’s wayside in Cairo, as well as Alexander and Pulaski counties.

“Worker-owned cooperatives are something that CCHD funds in an effort to help low-income people begin to build some wealth and thus break the cycle of poverty. CCHD also funds initiatives like this because it gives a decision-making voice to people who previously didn’t have a lot of decision-making power,” Sommer said.

For economic development grants, CCHD requires one-third low-income leadership and also low-income ownership.

Sommer explained that grants of up to $3,000 come from the 25 percent of the diocesan collection that stays in the diocese. But they receive funds from other sources as well.

“This past year, our diocese received $110,000 in community development grants from United Congregations of Metro-East and Parents United for Change, and $16,650 for Technical Assistance Grants to do feasibility studies and business plans for two potential economic development initiatives — GROW and The Grace Movement, a worker-owned childcare cooperative in the Carbondale area,” she said.

Guetersloh said they used the CCHD funds to form the 501c3, created a business plan, a feasibility study and starting to promote the GROW program.

Originally, she and several board members were going to travel to Detroit to visit a well-established work-cooperative accelerator, and to Western Illinois University, where the Illinois Cooperative Development Center is located, a USDA program that assists with establishing cooperatives.

“Unfortunately, those plans were delayed because of COVID-19. Since it looks like COVID isn’t slowing down, we have plans to do virtual visits over the next couple months,” she said.

They were recently notified about a grant they partnered with Shawnee Community College on—from USDA-Delta Health Care Services—to help healthcare careers. GROW plans to work with another area community college on career pathways as well.

“This is a two-year project that will allow us to enroll prospective worker/owners in health care classes and short-term training programs. We are working with SCC to create career pathways in healthcare.

Classes/work-force trainings will be created to offer all participants opportunities to enroll. Training opportunities will be designed for individuals with all levels of skills/experience. One career pathway is: Certified Nurses’ Assistant to LPN to RN to BSN to MSN,” she said.

“Currently we are having conversations with regional health care providers who have an interest in placing our work-cooperative participants. Additionally, we work very closely with businesses-employers when creating our training programs to ensure we have included everything they need/want in a new employee,” she said.

They are also working with a business that is creating a large resort.

“They will need a variety of workers, such as janitorial, groundskeeping, cooks, cooks’ assistants and housekeeping,” she said.

“The recent economic decline (due to COVID-19) has resulted in significant increase in stress and instability to many families in the region,” she said.

Guetersloh hopes to improve the quality of life of workers, while promoting local community and economic development for the future.

Founded in 1969 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Campaign for Human Development is an anti-poverty program that invests in people, so that they can rise above and serve their communities.

According to Sommer, in the past 51 years, CCHD has helped strengthen families, create jobs, build homes and fight crime.