BIG RAPIDS – Collaborative efforts within the Poverty Reduction Initiative are continuing to pay off as several new initiatives to assist local families living in poverty are nearing completion.

Lacey Gonzalez-Borstler, an intern working on her master’s in social work degree, presented at the PRI meeting on Friday a grant she wrote to start a local Getting Ahead program. The pilot program would include six people from Mecosta County and six people from Osceola County, determined through an application process. The 15-week program, which is part of the Bridges Out of Poverty initiative, teaches people living in poverty how to self-assess their situation, how to identify common causes of poverty, stages of change and how to develop resources that will improve their quality of life.

Participants are paid a stipend for each class they attend, and child care is provided.

“Our hope is that participants of the Getting Ahead program will join our local Poverty Reduction Initiative as a means to provide education and leadership to members and our community at large,” Gonzalez-Borstler said.

The cost of the program, which would be facilitated by Jerri Bozeman of MichiganWorks! and the Hope Network, is about $5,200. Gonzalez-Borstler will present her grant to United Way, Mecosta County Community Foundation and Osceola County Community Foundation by mid-February in hopes of receiving funding.

“Hopefully, if it is successful and we continue to get funding, we could have (Getting Ahead classes) two times a year,” she said.

Another new initiative waiting for approval is the Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows people to exchange $20, for example, on their Bridge Cards for $40 worth of tokens that they can use at local farmers markets.

Double Up Food Bucks is a state-wide program funded by nonprofit Fair Food Network. Farmers and Bridge Card users benefit from the program.

“The idea is if you can shop locally, you’re supporting your local farmers and eating healthily,” said Lew Roubal, director of the Department of Human Services for Mecosta and Osceola counties. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are really expensive, and it’s something you might not buy if you’re on a really limited income.”

Mecosta County’s application to join Double Up Food Bucks is still pending, but the program will start this spring if it’s approved. Residents need to contribute $1,000 to $3,000 to support the program, which will be matched by Fair Food Network. Ferris State University social work students have volunteered to help fundraise, and any other group is welcome to contribute.

“I think it’s a worthwhile program, and it’s going to be exciting to have it here locally,” Roubal said.

Also at the meeting, Karen Schneider, director of general education for the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District, presented the PRI’s new dashboard feature, which will be added to the website soon.

The needs assessment subcommittee thought it would be helpful to have a centralized location for tracking local data related to poverty. Schneider has organized data, going back five years when possible, on the percentage of Mecosta and Osceola county residents in poverty, percent homeless, number of people without health insurance, education level and median household income, among other things. She still is looking for more information on the number of requests food pantries receive and the counties’ health rankings.

The Mecosta-Osceola Human Services Collaborative, a group that represents about 45 agencies, will benefit from having such data available, Roubal said.

“It all comes back to what are the problems that intersect across paradigms?” he said. “This data is going to help us see that.”

The community survey that has been going on for several months is coming to a close. Organizers hope to learn through the survey responses more about what benefits families utilize, what needs are unmet and what obstacles keep them from receiving benefits.

Ferris graduate students have agreed to help organize and analyze the data, and 700 surveys already have been turned in, with at least another 60 on the way.

The Poverty Reduction Initiative will meet again at 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 24 at the MOISD Resource Center. For more information, visit www.moisd.org and click on the “Poverty Reduction Initiative” under the General Ed. tab.