Put Hard-Earned Money Back into Your Wallet

By Ross Yednock, Project Director, Michigan Economic Impact Coalition (MEIC)

Everyone does it. Or, at least, most people do. Some do it them on their own, others shell out their hard earned money and pay to have it done. But for those that learn about free tax preparation services, the savings can be huge.

This year, I had the opportunity to meet many of the clients of Michigan Economic Impact Coalition (MEIC) member sites: a school bus driver unable to afford retirement; a Little Cesar’s Pizza employee and new mother of an eight-week old daughter; a former long-haul trucker; a retiree from New Mexico who moved to Michigan to be close to family; a Meijer clerk; a graphic designer. Just as diverse as their backgrounds were the places I met them: a United Way office in Ann Arbor; a church in Grand Rapids; an old school building in Montcalm County; a municipal building in Lansing; a public library in Jackson; and an apartment complex in Inkster. Opportunities for free-tax assistance does not open and close during business hours – they are designed to accommodate working families, and offer evening and weekend hours.

Positive people fill the room at the different tax sites throughout Michigan. Many of them will receive refunds this year, some owed money and others were receiving less than they had in previous years. The story remains the same: all saved their hard-earned money by getting their taxes completed for free, by IRS trained and certified tax preparers. Those that paid to have their taxes done in the past, have paid more than $250 – $350 dollars (often more than 3-4 days of wages for low-income workers) to do relatively simple returns.

What I have learned has been both eye-opening and heartwarming. The clients come from all walks of life and learned about the free tax programs in a variety of ways. And while the plans they have for any refund they receive differ depending on their circumstances, all of their plans seem to have a similar focus – improving their financial situation by getting caught up on bills, paying property taxes, paying down debt and medical costs – and most talk about trying to save a little bit for a rainy day. (read some of last year’s stories).

For those that have yet to file their taxes this year, it’s not too late. You have until Tuesday, April 15, 2014 to file your 2013 taxes and there are plenty of free options available to help. Go to MichiganFreeTaxHelp.org, or call 2-1-1 to find a site near you. You can also try to do them yourself, using free software that includes toll-free hotline to answer any questions should you run into any problems (link to the organizations with the special symbol on this page for more information). And for those that have used a free site, share your story and you could win one of fifteen $100 gift cards.


Voices of AmeriCorps – Michael McAuliffe


IMG_2070As I begun my AmeriCorps service year in October, I was welcomed by my host site Community Housing Network as an equal team member and was quickly given the tools needed to serve the population of Wayne County by offering foreclosure prevention information and counseling. I was eager to learn more about the process of foreclosure and thought this would be a excellent way to serve the community of Wayne County. However, I did not realize on my first day what a pressing need there was for housing counseling services and how much of an impact I could make by advocating for people facing foreclosure.

For most of the programs that I assist homeowners with, the programs require a “involuntary hardship” in order to qualify. Most of these stories are fairly emotional and involve serious heartbreak. One client in particular made me understand the need for this kind of assistance in the communities. This client had the toughest hardship I have seen yet during my service here; several years ago she discovered that her son had a possibly cancerous brain tumor. Because of the tumor her son had to have extensive radiation, and with no one else to drive her son to radiation she was forced to miss several days of work. While her son was undergoing radiation, she separated from her husband and lost another source of income that was keeping her family together. Endless medical bills piled up and she began getting behind on her mortgage.

Since those tough times, our client has been doing much better-her son’s tumor was not cancerous, and he has started to work again. The last remaining obstacle to get this client out of her housing crisis is to get her caught up on her mortgage. If she can get caught up, she can rest knowing she can keep her home and not have to move after putting so much into her house. Together with Paul Stanford, our organization’s housing counselor, we were able to help point her toward programs such as Step Forward that would get her completely up to date on her mortgage, and help give her advice on her budget in order to keep her financially stable for years to come. Though she has not yet been approved, I am optimistic about her chances to keep her home through one of these programs.

This client has reminded me to passionately advocate for people who call or come in for help, because I can make a real difference on their lives. Without our agency offering our services, the above client would not have known about the help available and might have been forced to leave her home. I have already learned that this year of service will not be simply a “nice way to give back,” but a real asset to the community to aid them for years to come.

Michael McAuliffe is an AmeriCorps member at Community Housing Network in Troy.

This post is part of a blog series highlighting the viewpoints of Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps members serving at different foreclosure host sites around Michigan. View information about the program or see more stories in this series.

Successful Conference Planning from Start to Finish

by Liv Hagerman, Events & Communication Assistant

Conference planning can be a lot to handle, and one must be dedicated and patient with the many details of the process. Planning and effective communication are key components to the process and we suggest that you start by pre-planning, and follow our tips and tricks to outline your timeline.

Where to Start

step1Prepare a general time frame
Taking the time to plan can go a long way. Sitting down with a calendar and identifying key dates, goals and objectives and putting them into an approximate timeline will provide incremental benchmarks to work from.

Create a Marketing Plan
Another thing to consider in the initial planning stages is your marketing plan, or how you plan to get the word out ahead of time to reach those you hope to attend or sponsor the event. This can include an event logo, website, direct mail, postcards, a blurb in a newsletter, cross-promotion through partnerships, email signatures, social media and more. With variable costs and technical capabilities, it is helpful to determine early what is feasible and the required resources.

Draft a Budget
Finally, you must establish a general budget made up of fees related to venue, food, speakers and other extra costs. Registration costs should not only pay for all of these things, but yield a profit. This will also help realize a minimum registration requirement.

Be patient. Sometimes you don’t receive answers right away and numbers have to be projected. That’s ok! It’s all a process.

Planning Your Timeline: What to Do and When

4months 1. Planning Your Sessions & Sponsorship Packet

  • Talk to the board or planning committee to direct topics and speakers;
  • The designated person reaches out to the speakers to field general interest; and
  • Create a sponsorship packet that clearly articulates the event, objectives and sponsor benefits.

Marketing advice: If there is a specific event logo, this should be created during this early planning stage so that it is ready for the conference launch.

3months 2. Choose a Date and Venue; Fundraising
Tip: The earlier a date is chosen the better the chances are that the venue you want to hold the conference at will have available space.

  • Communicate with a banquet specialist about the details on space, timing and special needs;
  • Obtain a Banquet Event Order (BEO), which is the contract between you and the venue. The BEO needs to be signed by both parties. Keep a hard copy and electronic copy for your records; and
  • Reach out to potential sponsors for the event through past relationships and targeted emails. Be sure that those you are contacting have agendas that are in alignment with what the conference’s objectives are.

Marketing advice: This is a good time to launch the website with “Registration will be open soon” text. Be sure to have a concise description, the logo (if applicable), the organization hosting the event, any secured sponsors names and logos and location information. Also, reach out to potential partners for cross-promotion will help avoid missing entry-deadlines and optimize exposure.

1-2months3. Confirm Speakers, Draft Agenda & Launch Registration

  • Secure your speakers by making sure that they are available on the chosen date and prepare any necessary contracts. Maintain regular contact with speakers to obtain bios, discuss technology needs and accommodations, session descriptions and invoicing requirements;
  • Draft the agenda. It may look skeletal, but you will fill it in as you go with the most relevant information. Keep the session descriptions concise, but be descriptive while sounding fun and exciting to sell potential attendees. It can be nice to include on a registration website for people to view (just be sure to say if it is a draft or final).
  • Prepare to launch registration. Before it goes live ask a colleague to test it for any problems that may arise on the user-end. Include fields that ask for dietary restrictions, special accommodations and session interests; and
  • Maintain regular contact with the venue to ensure that any special accommodations and room requirements are organized.

Marketing advice: Really promote the event through social media and other communication channels that are both electronic and printed. Most people need to see an advertisement 7 times before it resonates within their memory, and the best way to do so is through a variety of methods. Have your designer reach out to the printer to find out when agendas and other printed items for the conference are needed for enough time to turn it around.

 4.  Final Numbers and Reminders2weeks

  • Send email reminders to registrants;
  • Provide conference center with final counts for food, beverage service and other room needs;
  • Receive and upload speaker presentations to designated computers; and
  • Put together conference packets with the agenda and other information that you plan to hand out, such as information about the organization or future event promotions.

Marketing advice: Always look professional with the items that you put together for the conference. Sometimes spending a little bit of money goes a long way and helps you to look more professional and credible.

5. Be Early, and Remain One Step Ahead dayof

  • Arrive early to make sure the registration is set up, as well as all the rooms agreed upon are set up as you had discussed with your banquet specialist;
  • Remember to smile and be friendly, and that everyone else is happy and comfortable. If an issue arises, take care of it immediately; and
  • Enjoy the day!

Marketing advice: If you have a person available, they should take lots of photos and post them on social media (in real-time or after the fact) and future newsletters. This helps people to see what they are missing and visualize an opportunity.

6. Post-Conference Recaprecap

  • Take detailed notes and examine participant evaluates about the day to evaluate success and create reminders/suggestions for next time;
  • Make sure all speaker and vendor invoices are paid; and
  • Write thank-you notes to speakers.

…and plan away!

From Placemaking to Community

By: Lisa Benck, Communications & Training Specialist

More than simply planning a festival or creating public art, placemaking thrives on the hope that thoughtful planning creates inclusive, equitable access to a place where you want to be. Successful vibrant communities can be a multi-faceted, tricky algorithm, even with collaborative partnerships and supportive policies. Blight, vacancy, ownership, needs, form based code, community input and historical integrity are just some of the words heard frequently that factor into how a vision plays out. Just as importantly and more emotionally, a home is a place an individual associates with their very own identity.

So, how do we get there?

Community-based economic development organizations embody socially-guided work that identifies community challenges and pairs them with solutions to leverage people into a more advantageous and supportive position, fostering actual change. Identifying solutions requires us to understand our history, negative connotations and stereotypes and identifying ways to proactively respond to these challenges for the benefit of our communities.

Vulnerable populations may need initial help, but the path to change and empowerment involves a longer-range plan including safe and affordable housing and supportive services to teach and reinforce along the way. Eliminating the barrier to entry is one of the biggest challenges faced, with pushback and funding among the top struggles. Industry trends illustrate the pull toward housing rehabilitations, weatherization and green programs, multi-family and higher density structures; the housing stock that is produced today should integrate beautifully within the surrounding community. Supportive services such as financial empowerment initiatives, youth programs and food equity help individuals avoid a reoccurring cycle of isolation and bad luck that always seems to push them back down.

As our work progresses we must consider new ideas, discover methods and resources and collaborate with peers to enhance our work. The Building Michigan Communities Conference (BMCC) is one potential upcoming opportunity on April 28-30, 2014, in Lansing. Diverse speakers over the three-day conference will help generate thought and conversation around innovative placemaking and equity approaches, with workshops structured to help tackle the “how” involved with relevant programs and issues.

The 2014 BMCC Keynote Speaker Lineup:

Find out more about the BMCC and register at www.buildingmicommunities.org. While you are in town, please join us for our annual Membership Celebration, our social event of the year taking place on Tuesday after the last session of the conference.  Held at the top of the Christman Building offering spectacular views of the State Capitol Building, there will be great food, drinks and peers to connect (and reconnect) with. We hope you’ll join us; see you in Lansing next month!


Does Placemaking Lead to Gentrification?

Gentrification ComicLast month during a MIplace Placemaking Curriculum training, one of the attendees asked, “Does placemaking lead to gentrification?”

We put this question to some of the MIplace partners and they came back with two very good articles published last month. We added the first article for a little background on gentrification if you are not familiar with it. The other two are summarized with key takeaways, although we recommend reading both in full.

What is Gentrification, Anyway? (Shelterforce)
A brief look at how practitioners in community development define gentrification.

  • If we see any kind of community improvement as gentrification, it’s impossible to move forward.

Gentrification: We’re both the problem and the solution (PlaceMakers)
Scott Doyon examines the rise of the economically depressed neighborhood he moved to and tries to understand who in this story is a gentrifier and who is a casualty. Is it possible to be both?

  • Neighborhoods with characteristics people like (neighborhoods that are places) attract investment.
  • Investment leads to newcomers in the neighborhood. Newcomers who think they are entitled to remake the neighborhood to serve their own narrow band of interests are wrong.
  • But so are longtime residents who think they are entitled to a world without change.
  • Neighborhoods in transition can unite the new and old to create a diverse community that benefits everyone living there.

Is Gentrification Different in Legacy Cities? (Legacy Cities)
Professor Todd Swanstrom discovers previously poor performing neighborhoods that are becoming better places to live do not fit the classic definition of gentrification.

  • Rebound neighborhoods experience a significant increase in per capita income or decrease in poverty rate and vacancy.
  • Revitalization and placemaking are a key part of rebound neighborhoods. Examples include creating pedestrian friendly local retail, opening a high-quality school and using a famous historic cemetery to fund housing rehab.
  • Rebound neighborhoods can improve physically, attract affluent, young professionals and yet remain economically and racially diverse. Therefore it is entirely possible to improve a neighborhood without pushing out minorities and low-income families.

Voices of AmeriCorps – Hailey Hartig

americorps-banner2013-12-06 14.03.38While reflecting on my time as an AmeriCorps member thus far, I have noticed significant change within myself. I am generally a very bold and outgoing person, however when beginning my term with AmeriCorps I felt out of my league. I had no idea what an intake specialist meant or what being a “specialist” would entail. I was worried that I wouldn’t be up to par with the rest of the team. During my first few weeks with AmeriCorps I was very shy and timid and would allow other team members to take on the “hard” duties while I watched and learned. When I spoke on the phone with clients I would stutter and often times put clients on hold in order to get further information from the counselors. Fortunately, my attempts to job shadow my fellow colleagues have started to pay off. I have become very fluent in regards to understanding tax foreclosure and I can relay my new found knowledge onto the clients I speak with. I am able to portray the timeline of tax foreclosure very clearly to the clients and most times I am able to put them at ease.

At Center for Financial Health we have been overwhelmed with tax foreclosure clients. Many clients call in an outright panic and want answers now. It is up to me to explain the process of tax foreclosure and help to put them at contentment for the time being. Gathering information from frightened clients can be very difficult at times as most of the time they are just looking for someone to confide in about their situation. I have learned to be much more empathetic towards others and try to truly relate to others. Recently there was a client who called Center for Financial Health who was in tax foreclosure for 2011 taxes which meant she was facing a serious consequence of losing her home very soon. I advised her to contact the county treasurer’s office and explain to them that she was working with Center for Financial Health and she has an appointment scheduled with us, in hopes that the treasurer’s office would give her an extension. I also worked with one of the counselors and was able to get the client scheduled for an appointment pretty quickly. The client asked for my name and my direct line. She then thanked me and said “Thank you for taking the time to help me. I really appreciate it.” I love hearing clients thank me because that means I am doing my job well and the clients appreciate my efforts just as much as I appreciate their gratitude.

Hailey and Mayor Benero dancing the wobble

Hailey and Mayor Bernero dancing the wobble

AmeriCorps has also afforded me many opportunities in regards to training workshops and attending public events. Recently I attended “Show Me the Money Day” and wobbled with the mayor of Lansing, Virg Bernero. I have also been able to learn more about the grant writing process, how to recruit and sustain volunteers, the ins and outs of foreclosure, and marketing and outreach. Furthermore I have been able to put my networking skills to use and connect with many respectfully known business professionals. AmeriCorps is a blessing to my future success and has allowed me to grow as a person and as a professional. I now know that once my term with AmeriCorps is complete that I want to continue volunteering in the community and want to lead a career that is specific to helping those in need. During my first few weeks as an AmeriCorps member I wouldn’t have been able to clearly explain to others what I do as an AmeriCorps member. Now I love when people ask me what I do because now I can explain with ease! “I am an AmeriCorps member serving at Center for Financial Health and I help people sustain affordable, healthy living through education and prevention, one home at a time.”

Hailey Hartig is an AmeriCorps member at Center for Financial Health in Lansing.

This post is part of a blog series highlighting the viewpoints of Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps members serving at different foreclosure host sites around Michigan. View information about the program or see more stories in this series.


Scooter Returns: LIHTC, CDBG, EITC, Section 8

Juanita and Scooter

Juanita and Scooter three years later.

In 2011, a paper stick figure named Scooter revitalized an abandoned school in his neighborhood with Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Today that video is one of CEDAM’s most popular because it is an easy way for members to show new staff, interns, AmeriCorps members and others what LIHTC is and how it works.

We decided to update Scooter’s video, make new ones on other topics and put them all on our website for members to download. Log in to the website here to save a copy to use in your next presentation, or see below for each video on YouTube.

Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) in 3 minutes
Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in 3 minutes
Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) in 3 minutes
Section 8 Housing Vouchers in 3 minutes

If you’d like to see what the paper community development field looked like in 2011, here is the old version: http://youtu.be/-1gqU2uy8Vk

President Obama Visits Michigan State – Signs Farm Bill

Farm Bill Signinga

By Grace Empie, MCFE and Policy Intern

FarmBill4Friday February 7, 2014 President Barack Obama visited Michigan State University’s campus to sign into law H.R. 2642, the Agriculture Act of 2014, otherwise known as the ‘Farm Bill’ and CEDAM staff attended the event. The bill will expand opportunities for innovative food systems and programs with an investment of over $1.2 billion in the next five years. Specific areas including conservation and energy, subsidy reform, local and regional food systems, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, organic agriculture, research and education and rural development.

The bill includes a 1%, $800 million cut to SNAP. The savings are generated by making it more difficult for states to give recipients a minimal amount of heating assistance in order to trigger higher food stamps benefits. This cut means about 850,000 households will lose about $90/month in benefits.

Local and regional food systems awards have been expanded including a triple in funding to farmers market and local food promotion programs and community food project budgets doubled. Along with the increased funding two new programs will be implemented. The food insecurity nutrition incentive will provide grants to organizations that promote farmers markers and an increased fruit and vegetable consumption among SNAP recipients. Also a new USDA sponsored whole farm diversified risk management insurance that will provide revenue insurance for diversified farms that have in the past been left out of the federal crop insurance system and are focused on local markets.

While funding for local and regional food systems was increased and a new food insecurity nutrition incentive was created, only a small percentage of the budget is focused in rural development. Two new programs were included, the value-added producer grant and the rural microentrepreneur assistance program. The value-added grant will assist farmers in developing new markets for a growing demand of high quality products at a local and regional level. The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program will assist in providing training, technical assistance and microloans to small rural businesses with a budget of $3 million annually.

A large focus has been placed on beginning farmers and ranchers with $100 million geared towards new training programs with a focus on military veterans, but benefits for the socially disadvantaged was greatly reduced. A $10 million reduction to outreach for socially disadvantaged farmers cut their past benefits in half, but expanding again with a new focus on military veteran farmers. A new microloan program through the USDA will connect new farmers to a third party intermediary who will microloans and financial training. Also, a new incentive program will be put in place for retiring landowners to rent or sell their expiring CPR (Conservation Reserve Program) land to new or minority farmers.

There have been many additions and reductions from the last ‘Farm Bill’ that was signed in 2008 a higher focus on local and regional food systems with larger incentives to beginning farmers and those with a larger focus on rural and local farmers markets. A new focus has been placed on military veteran farmers as well as minorities.

Integrating FAFSA and VITA Partnerships in Michigan Communities

Sarah Anthony, Director of Finance & Strategic Partnership, MCAN

As the cost of college continues to increase, financial aid becomes ever more important. While many factors are involved in the decision to attend college, there is a strong correlation between completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and college enrollment. A completed FAFSA allows the U.S. Department of Education to determine a potential student’s eligibility for federal student aid – a key factor in families’ college decisions. Every year, the federal government awards about $150 billion in the form of grants, low-interest loans, and work-study funds to help millions of students pay for college.

Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) works to increase the college readiness, participation and completion rate in Michigan, particularly among low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. Our goal is to increase the proportion of Michigan residents with college degrees and valuable credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025.  MCAN supports over 50 local alliances throughout the state called Local College Access Networks (LCANs) to assist students with postsecondary preparation and planning.

These networks have sparked schools and communities to dramatically increase FAFSA completion rates.
This year, MCAN has teamed up with the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM) to explore the integration of free tax-preparation services to assist low-income families with FAFSA completion. Representatives from MCAN and CEDAM are providing technical assistance to LCANs and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site coordinators in Detroit, Newaygo, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Muskegon. The goal of the pilot project is to help strengthen existing FAFSA-VITA collaborations, glean best practices from a diverse array of communities, and potentially expand these efforts statewide.

For more information regarding the Michigan College Access Network, visit www.micollegeaccess.org.

Food & Warmth – MLK Day of Service Recap

The Martin Luther King Jr National Day of Service is a call for people to volunteer some free time and energy to give back. The Michigan Foreclosure Prevention Corps members chose from a variety of projects across the state to help their fellow man and communities. Below, two members recount their MLK National Day of Service experiences.

Helping to Feed


Volunteers at the Greater Lansing Food Bank

By Katie Burns

In tribute to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s life and legacy, AmeriCorps members around the country completed a day of service in their communities this week. It was a time for us to give back to those in need, and perhaps to even reflect upon what we have. Personally I spent a lot of time selecting a project, because I wanted something that would really be meaningful to me. I didn’t want to just mark it off as another few hours toward my required 1700.

As I continued to search, I thought a lot about the issues closest to my heart, which coincidentally are the same ones that led me to pursue social work for a time after college. I have always been concerned about poverty and hunger, and my work showed me firsthand how devastating their effects can be. I later became an attorney and then an AmeriCorps member primarily because I wanted to help people provide adequately for their families.

With that thought in mind, I chose to volunteer at the Greater Lansing Food Bank (GLFB), which provides literally millions of pounds of food to 136 local kitchens, shelters and agencies in seven Michigan counties throughout the year. I helped sort and pack some of this donated food into large boxes, while working alongside other AmeriCorps members and community volunteers. Working as a team we went through over a dozen bins of various products, and I was amazed that we were able to get so much done in a relatively short time. More importantly, it was rewarding to know that the boxes I packed would ultimately end up feeding people in need.

Katie Burns is an AmeriCorps member at Elder Law of Michigan in Lansing, Michigan.

Keeping People Warm

By Vicki Newcomb

For our MLK Jr Day service project, I teamed up with fellow AmeriCorps members, Leondra Fair, LizMarie Colon and Crystal Elissetche to organize a coat drive. We spread the word that we were looking for donations of new or gently used coats and other warm clothes that would be donated to the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center. For many of these refugees this was going to be their first year, not only in the United States, but also their first winter dealing with a Michigan winter. Since many of them have come from countries where they did not have the need for coats and warm clothes, we thought it would be nice to collect some of the essentials that anyone needs in order to cope with a brutal Michigan winter.

When it was all said and done, we ended up donating a total of 57 coats, 12 sweaters, 17 hats, 26 pairs of gloves, 3 scarves, 2 pairs of snow pants…and for good measure Leondra also donated 3 boxes of books. I thoroughly enjoyed working with my fellow AmeriCorps members on this service project, and we have already started planning our next service project where we plan to team up again to do a book and toy drive for the Helen Devos Children’s Hospital for our 9/11 service project.

Planning and/or volunteering service projects can be very rewarding. The satisfaction and pride that comes from helping others is rewarding. When you commit your time and effort to an organization or a cause you feel strongly about, the feeling of fulfillment can be endless. This is also the same reason why we all choose to serve as AmeriCorps members in our communities and those surrounding us.

Vicki Newcomb is an AmeriCorps member at MSU Extension – Ionia County in Ionia, Michigan.

This post is part of a blog series highlighting the viewpoints of Michigan AmeriCorps Foreclosure Prevention Corps members serving at different foreclosure host sites around Michigan. View information about the program or see more stories in this series.