TVCCA's role grows as economy falters

Deborah Monahan says her Thames Valley Council for Community Action agency is having an increasing impact on southeastern Connecticut's economy, as economic stresses boost demand for its services - from tax assistance to workplace training.

The agency is already a big employer, with a staff of nearly 420 and an annual budget approaching nearly $30 million.

"For the first time, we're seeing people who never before had to ask for help," says Monahan, a 38-year veteran of the social-service agency whose primary focus on children, individuals and families is within New London County, although it has some programs operating in Windham and Tolland counties. About 95 percent of the agency's funding comes from federal monies.

Monahan says the Great Recession was among the most challenging of times for the regional agency. And rising unemployment and increasing numbers of "newly" jobless have stretched both its staff and systems.

Monahan estimates the agency brings in more than $20 million annually from outside the region, with the majority of funds passing through the agency to local vendors, for everything from housing, to food, energy and training services for clients. Its vendors include local fuel companies, utilities, property owners and food suppliers.

Of the agency's $29.5 million operating budget, nearly $10 million goes toward energy-related services, and some $2 million goes toward employment and training, with another $2 million earmarked for housing-related services.

TVCCA's programs often work with local businesses, local vendors and others to provide a step up to lower-income individuals, the working poor and others in need of assistance.

"Where they pretty much enter the agency is through energy assistance," says Monahan, the executive director of TVCCA who is based at its Jewett City administrative offices. "People find themselves on unemployment, trying to make ends meet, and then winter comes and they're really stretched, or they get utility shutoffs."

This past year, the agency's energy-assistance program took in more than 10,000 applications.

The economic impact from that program can be felt among the many small-business vendors who work with TVCCA to assist those in need of energy assistance. "If it weren't for those small business propane dealers, oil dealers and kerosene dealers, the fuel wouldn't get to the homes," says Monahan. She estimates that the agency's energy-assistance program pumped about $7 million into the local economy "and that helps keep those small businesses going."

She also estimates that the agency's participation in the federal WIC program (Women, Infants and Children assistance) adds about $2.5 million worth of funds into local grocery stores that participate in the program.

The TVCCA's participation in the VITA program (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) is now moving into its fifth year. In 2010, the agency hit the $1 million mark for refunds coming back into southeastern Connecticut for individuals who went to the agency's volunteer VITA tax counselors, who are all trained according to federal Internal Revenue Service guidelines.

"Each year, we're seeing the number of people coming into the program increase," says Monahan. "Last year, we had about 700." The popularity of the program necessitated an appointment system, which agency officials say is working out well at the various locations that offer the VITA tax-preparation assistance.

Monahan says that child-care issues among working families and individuals can often mean the difference between gainful employment and a lack of a job or career.

"All they need is high-quality day care," she says, "but affordable day care." She says her agency is able to offer day-care services on a sliding scale. "If they know they have reliable child care, they're going to go to work," she says.

Monahan says that social-service agencies across southeastern Connecticut have a direct impact on the economy, from their full- and part-time employment to the various programs that put state, federal or even local funds back into the economy through food assistance, energy assistance, job training or other work skills-building offerings.

"You can name lots and lots of agencies (in southeastern Connecticut) working to try to make the community better," says Monahan. "We also try to buy local and spend our money locally, on supplies and equipment."

"The more we can do," she adds, "the better we feel about supporting our local community."

"We like to think that it's a partnership here with local business."

a.cronin@theday.com

Agency Snapshot

Name: Thames Valley Council for Community Action

Employees: 420

Budget: $29.5 million, 2010

Offices: Administrative office in Jewett City; program offices in New London and Norwich.

Background: TVCCA is a community action agency, which are nonprofit agencies created by the federal government in 1964 to combat poverty in specific geographic agencies. TVCCA primarily serves New London County, as well as portions of Windham and Tolland counties.

Telephone: (860) 889-1365

Website: www.tvcca.org

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