SALISBURY, N.C. (AP) — Stephanie Bruce grew up in public housing. Now she helps people move out of it.
Bruce, 45, serves as the new coordinator for the Family Self-Sufficiency program at Salisbury Housing Authority. Bruce graduated from the program herself in 2004, learning skills and saving enough money to move out of Civic Park Apartments a year later and buy her own home.
When Bruce talks to tenants about enrolling in the program and they hesitate, she uses herself as proof it can work. As long as they are willing to make the effort, she says.
All her adult life, Bruce was determined to leave public housing and become a homeowner.
"It was hard and very challenging," she said. "I knew against all odds I had to keep moving forward. That's why I sometimes would work two jobs and why I endured school and work, and why I didn't have a social life for a while.
Bruce has fond memories of living in public housing as a child with her mother, three sisters and grandparents. The neighborhood acted as an extended family, with people helping to raise each other's children.
Her mother always worked, Bruce said, and instilled a strong work ethic in Bruce and her sisters.
As an adult, living in public housing was a much different experience for Bruce. Most of the people living around her did not have a job.
Bruce found in the self-sufficiency program the support and camaraderie she needed to help achieve her goals.
"I was accustomed to working. Something in me always said I need to work," she said. "Within the neighborhood, it's kind of hard to stay motivated when people around you don't share the same goals and interests."
Bruce graduated from Salisbury High School in 1984 and attended Johnson C. Smith University for two years. She was the first person in her family to go to college.
When her mother became ill, and Bruce dropped out to help care for her. Then Bruce had a baby.
She abandoned her college career and went to work to provide for her son and family, taking jobs in manufacturing plants and fast food restaurants. Living in Civic Park Apartments in 1991, Bruce never gave up on her dream to earn a college degree.
Coordinator Zelda Turner began talking to her about the Family Self-Sufficiency program. Although Turner was persistent, Bruce said she was struggling to make ends meet and raise her son, while helping to care for her mother. She just wasn't ready.
"Sometimes you get so bogged in today it's hard to think about next week or tomorrow or even the next hour," Bruce said. "I was in the mode of survival."
Eventually, Turner convinced Bruce to enroll.
"It was the best decision I ever made," Bruce said. "I still thank her for that."
The self-sufficiency program, which went dormant after Bruce graduated and was renewed by Sam Foust when he took the helm at Salisbury Housing Authority, is designed to help families get off government assistance and become financially independent.
The program provides bus fare to get to school, appointments and job interviews. Participants learn how to budget their money and other life skills.
As coordinator, Bruce connects participants with resources in the community. On their own, tenants — who often do not own a computer — may not discover places like the R3 re-employment center in Kannapolis, the first-time homebuyers program at Salisbury Community Development Corporation or services offered through the Employment Securities Commission.
Participants work with Bruce to set goals and map out a five-year plan to accomplish them. Like Bruce, most put "college degree" at the top of their list.
In 2001, at age 35, Bruce enrolled at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. It had been 15 years since her last college course. She transferred to Catawba College and earned a degree in business administration.
The self-sufficiency program requires participants to deposit any additional income they earn while they are enrolled into an escrow account, which they receive when they graduate. They can withdraw money during the program to buy something goal-related. Bruce took out money to buy a laptop.
When she completed the program, Bruce had accumulated $3,000 in escrow. The money went toward the down payment on a Habitat for Humanity house.
To finish, participants must achieve all their goals and hold a job for 12 months. That takes five years for most people, but some do it in as few as three years. Bruce needed seven years.
In 2005, she began working for the Salisbury Housing Authority. Five years later, Foust resurrected the Family Self-Sufficiency program and made Bruce the full-time coordinator.
"I saw the need to develop the whole person, rather than just provide housing for someone," Foust said.
Bruce gives the program legitimacy, Foust said.
"I can always point to Stephanie and say, 'It can be done. All you have to do is want to do it,' " he said. "It has so much more value, because she is speaking from experience."
Since taking over the program, Bruce has built enrollment to 21 families. So far, two have graduated.
The 90-day joining process serves as a way to screen participants. In the first three months, tenants must complete vocational testing, set goals and attend meetings.
"I can tell within that time period," Bruce said. "If they keep appointments and follow up, they are going to be good participants."
Bruce knows it's hard — she's been there.
"I have an absolute understanding of what they are dealing with, so I can empathize with their situations," she said.
She talks to each of the 545 families in Salisbury Housing Authority about the self-sufficiency program. New tenants go through an orientation process that includes Bruce, and she publishes a newsletter with information about the program, sharing success stories about people who have met a goal or completed the program.
Rather than an "authority," Bruce wants tenants to see the public housing agency as a partner ready to help them accomplish their goals.
"It's important that residents are able to live their best life," she said. "We're here to partner with them, and not just tell them what do to."
Bruce laughs when she says "I've turned into Zelda." Just like Zelda Turner, the former coordinator who convinced her to join, Bruce now pesters people to sign up.
Bruce's caseload will reach capacity when she has 25 families. Foust is pursuing grants to fund a second full-time position for the self-sufficiency program.
"I wish I had three more just like her," he said.
Information from: Salisbury Post, http://www.salisburypost.comTags: