'Just What I Needed': Extension Nurtures Entrepreneurs in University District

April 21, 2011

Editor: OSU Extension's University District office will host an open house on Wednesday, April 27, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Schoenbaum Family Center, 175 E. Seventh Ave., Columbus, to help spread the word about the programs and services available to area residents.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On the west side of Ohio State University is Upper Arlington. Median household income: $87,557. Median home value: $316,768. Residents living below poverty: 4.8 percent. It's what you might expect in a neighborhood adjacent to a world-class research and teaching institution.

On the east side of the university is the Weinland Park neighborhood, part of the University District area. Median household income: $17,558. Median home value: $95,444. Residents living below poverty: 48 percent.

The contrast is hard to miss. But since 2002, Ohio State University Extension has dedicated a full-time educator to the University District, building partnerships and directly meeting the needs of its residents.

The commitment hasn't escaped notice.

"The Ohio State University Extension center has been an incredible opportunity for residents in Weinland Park," said Joyce Hughes, president of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association. "They provide education, training, job fairs, money management and so much more. Our residents receive skills and resources they need to be self-reliant, and this is helping to transform our neighborhood from inside out."

Susan Colbert, educator for OSU Extension who has coordinated Extension's University District programs for nine years, says the key is that Extension truly sees the neighborhood as a partner.

"We respect people's time and talents, and we've been able to engage community residents not by imposing our beliefs and values on them, but by allowing them to direct us."

Colbert is the only full-time Extension employee in the office, housed at the Schoenbaum Family Center at 175 E. Seventh Ave., but she makes the most of resources available. For example, Jean Brookbank, a professional social worker, works in the office through Americorps and provides leadership for several programs. The office also hires part-time clerical workers through a work experience program of the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, and the AARP offers a pool of volunteers to assist.

Among the most recent additions to the University District's Extension programs are those focused on nurturing neighborhood entrepreneurs. The classes are open to all city residents but preference is given to those living in Weinland Park. In March, a dozen residents graduated from a six-week Microenterprise Training class. Now, one of those graduates and 11 others are attending a class on completing business plans. The idea is to foster the development of small businesses and other enterprises in the area.

The classes are just what 31-year-old Jasmine Handy needed. In 2006, Handy worked as a hotel maid and was thinking of applying to a home-cleaning service when a friend suggested she start her own business.

"Friends told me all I needed was a website and some business cards," Handy said. "So I put up a website, got some business cards -- it was cheap," Handy said. "I thought, wow, this is pretty easy." She soon got two clients, who spread the word and garnered Handy even more.

But at the end of the year, taxes hit her pretty hard. "I didn't know all the ins and outs," she said. "I didn't calculate all my costs -- gas, for example. After the first year, I realized I had practically no profit."

After a few years, she dropped the business and started working for her church. But her dream of owning her own business never died. When she saw the notice about OSU Extension's Microenterprise Training class, she signed up.

"They covered how to register your business with the Secretary of State, how to get your Tax ID number, all sorts of marketing strategies -- all key steps I initially missed," Handy said. "I never knew any of that or how important those steps are." Now she's participating in the business plan microenterprise course.

"These classes, they're helping me learn how to do it right, step by step, pursuing it in a more professional way," Handy said.

And now, Handy's dream has gotten even bigger. She hopes her business becomes so successful that she can eventually start one in her native Youngstown. "That city has lost a lot of businesses over the years," Handy said. "When I go back, I see a lot of blight, but I also see so much opportunity and potential. I know it won't be easy, but I would like to invest in the community, eventually hiring young people to help motivate them to pursue their dreams."

Handy is one of the microenterprise participants who also joined an Individual Development Account (IDA) program for low-income individuals and families, available through a partnership with the Ohio Community Development Corporations Association. Participants deposit at least $10 weekly, for a total of $500, in a dedicated savings account. They complete an eight-hour money management course and attend other workshops; those who successfully complete the program receive a 2-to-1 match for their savings to be used for business start-up or expansion, secondary education expenses or homeownership.

Handy tries to put $20 to $25 weekly in her CDC account; she hopes it will give her business a jump-start, perhaps even allow her to hire a part-time helper, when the match comes through.

"While taking these classes, I've had the privilege of meeting some good, passionate people," Handy said. "I hear their dreams and goals, and have gotten ideas from them on ways to better my business. It's also a great way to network. They are now true friends and also future business owners who I can consider contacting in the future."

Extension's other University District programs focused on community development include:

  • Homebuyers/foreclosure prevention workshops. Participants meet individually and as a group with OSU Extension counselors certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, bankers and real estate professionals. "We pull their credit reports, and the residents can begin to work on any issues that are identified," Brookbank said. "People think they'll walk out feeling spanked, but instead they feel empowered."
  • Financial education/money management classes. "A lot of people think they don't have any money, especially if they're unemployed or underemployed," Colbert said. "But we focus on how to handle the money you do have so it doesn't just get frittered away. Participants say it helps them appreciate the value of a dollar. We see the information transforming their lives, the lives of their families, and the entire neighborhood."
  • Quarterly job fairs, in partnership with the Weinland Park Employment Collaborative. The first one of 2011 on March 16 attracted a dozen employers and about 100 residents.
  • Computer training, including certified classes in Microsoft products and classes on how to use the Internet, offered at Godman Guild and the Columbus Urban League. "When people are out of work, we say why don't you attend classes -- you can put this on your resume," Colbert said. "A lot of folks don't know how to use the computer. Now you need to know that for most jobs, even for a job at McDonald's."
  • In partnership with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, Extension is offering employment and education information sessions for ex-offenders. Residents who have any sort of criminal record find it nearly impossible to find work, Colbert said. Brookbank adds, "To see a 40-year-old man who hasn't been in trouble since he was 25 in tears because he can't get a job -- that's heartbreaking. All they want to do is support their families."
  • Thanks to a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to the Schoenbaum center, OSU Extension is partnering in a project funding four half-time apprenticeship positions for mothers whose children are enrolled in Schoenbaum's early learning center, helping them get education and experience for work in childcare centers.
  • Thanks to funding from Lowe's in late 2010, Extension arranged for five families to receive $20,000 each in interior home repairs, and, with Rebuilding Together Columbus and Lowe's, helped another five homeowners receive $3,000 toward emergency interior repairs.

In addition, Colbert coordinates a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program each tax season with Ohio State's Fisher College of Business students. In 2010, they assisted 225 individuals, helping them recover more than $400,000 in earned income and child tax credits.

The Extension office also offers health-related programs, from sponsoring a weekly walking group to a new Moms-2-Be Program, a prenatal program supported by Nationwide Children's Hospital and a grant from International Poverty Solutions.

"Weinland Park has one of the highest infant mortality rates," Colbert said. The Moms-2-Be program offers weekly nutrition and cooking sessions, courtesy of the Franklin County Extension Office Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (Kroger's donates the food); and the program connects pregnant women with other mothers, nurses, doctors and services.

Extension's University District programs work because they focus on meeting the community's needs, Colbert said. Participants in their programs agree. Judy Thompson, a long-time education advocate in the Columbus area, hopes to start a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping parents become more involved in their children's schooling. Though she raised six successful children, went back to school and earned her Bachelor's and two Master's degrees, including an MBA, she enrolled in Extension's inaugural microenterprise class.

"Even though I already have the passion and the credibility, I still need to know how to put this new organization together properly," Thompson said. "The MBA -- that's classroom stuff. These classes are hands-on, and every week we learned something new. People who go through programs like this -- the chances that they'll be successful are much greater. It's just what I needed."

Author(s): 
Martha Filipic
Source(s): 
Susan Colbert, Jean Brookbank