As Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House approaches its 125th birthday, it continues its mission to act as a catalyst for change. Our goal is to be a change agent by providing opportunities and experience – in addition to services – to individuals and families who have been disproportionately affected by the ongoing economic downturn. Riis Settlement is a true community-based not-for-profit organization, embedded in Western Queens, New York, and working across the generations and cultures that make our community the incredibly vibrant place it is. The majority of our constituents live in the Queensbridge and Ravenswood Houses – home to more than 11,000 low- to moderate-income African-American, Latino, and South Asian residents.
Demographic data for the two developments we serve paint a stark picture:
- The average family income is only $23,761 for a family of four;
- Fourteen percent of families rely on public assistance;
- A staggering 51 percent of families have at least one member who is unemployed;
- Thirty-two percent of families are led by a single parent or caregiver
(female in almost all cases);
- Thirty percent have a family head of household older than 62 years of age;
- The high school graduation rate remains stubbornly low at 25 percent.
Many of these families live on the edges, often earning minimum wage with no paid days off and limited access to child care. Because of these realities, their daily existence is not about self-actualization, but about survival and struggling for items that many of us take for granted – meals, housing, transportation, education, child care, and medical care (for many families, the emergency room is the family doctor).
I must stress, however, that the vast majority of local residents are hard-working, talented individuals who lead lives of dignity and purpose and who care deeply about their families. With that in mind, we focus on the assets of our participants – not on their struggles – as we help them gain access to the same opportunities to which everyone is entitled.
To address some of these issues, Riis provides comprehensive services to three primary target groups and their families: youth, seniors, and immigrants. The range of services we provide includes meals and medical services for seniors, English language classes and case assistance for immigrants, access to technology, homework help, college and career counseling, and recreation for youth.
Our work focuses on outcomes, not numbers served, and we have identified and articulated long-term outcomes for each of the primary groups we serve:
- We want youth to graduate from high school and be prepared for success in college, work and civic life.
- We want seniors to live independently, and age in their community.
- We want immigrants to be successful in education, work and civic life.
To have this type of impact, Riis relies on collaboration with partners such as IBM to achieve life-changing results for our clients. Agencies like ours count on the support of corporations, foundations and individuals because this support is less restrictive, less bureaucratic and less taxing on administrative infrastructure than government funding.
Our partnership with IBM has been meaningful on many levels. Undoubtedly, the most lasting initiative has been the creation of our Catalyst database, a unique system that has been customized to fit our needs, and is aligned to our program model and outcomes. In the past, Riis Settlement relied on 10 separate databases as required by government contracts – and this was just for our youth programs! Many of these databases simply tracked basic demographic data and attendance, and information often was not shareable. With Catalyst, we can better implement our evaluation plan by providing a mechanism to share data, track participants across programs, measure specific outcomes and milestones, and make needed programmatic adjustments. Catalyst provides real-time data and tools, and is the hub of our information-gathering and evaluation protocol.
Catalyst provides additional benefits:
- IBM’s server is hosted on the cloud, so all five of our campuses have the same
level of access;
- Catalyst tracks program participants year-to-year and assesses their
progress over time;
- The database helps us save time and conserve resources;
- Catalyst provides excellent data to help us market the work we do.
The prerequisites for the success of a system like Catalyst are a mature agency culture, sufficient capacity, and proactive leadership. I am delighted to report that, with the help of partners like IBM, we have surpassed those prerequisites.
Given the opportunity, our participants will grow, succeed and move from survival to self-actualization – as many already have. With the help of IBM and the Catalyst database,
Riis Settlement is placing hundreds of individuals each year in a position to reach their greatest potential.
William T. Newlin is Executive Director of the Jacob Riis Neighborhood Settlement House – a member of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, and a community based non-profit organization that offers comprehensive services to the youth, adults, seniors and families of Western Queens, New York.