KVCAP leadership changing, mission is not

April 29, 2015

Suzanne Walsh says 50 years after Community Action started serving Kennebec and Somerset counties, it's still 'about eliminating poverty.'

Morning Sentinel, April 29, 2015

WATERVILLE — Suzanne Walsh reflects on the changes that have occurred at Kennebec Valley Community Action Program over the last quarter century and identifies one thing that has never changed.

“Our mission is always the same — it’s about eliminating poverty and helping empower people to become self-sufficient,” she said. “We’ve been trying to do that for 50 years.”

Walsh, 49, is KVCAP’s new chief executive officer, replacing Patricia Kosma, who is retiring. She starts her new job Monday.

Walsh knows the organization well. She’s worked at KVCAP 26 years, most recently as chief operating officer, so she was a natural fit for the top spot. She started in 1988 as program services coordinator for adolescent services and then worked in various positions dealing with affordable housing, fuel assistance, weatherization, education and other services KVCAP provides.

As chief executive officer, Walsh will oversee a $16.2 million annual budget for the not-for-profit organization based on Water Street in the city’s South End. KVCAP serves more than 22,000 people each year in Kennebec and Somerset counties. More than 240 people work for KVCAP, which also has offices in Skowhegan and Augusta, as well as outreach locations throughout the counties.

KVCAP operates mostly on federal and state funding, but gets some private and municipal money as well. The Community Action Network was formed from the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision to help eliminate poverty, and was designed to help poor people become more self-sufficient.

Kosma provided great leadership over the years, Walsh said, and KVCAP will continue to build on the work she has done.

“She’s just a wonderful person,” Walsh said. “Her leadership and vision are just unbelievable. We’re really going to miss her.”

Kosma has been chief executive officer seven years of the 35 she has worked at KVCAP. Like Walsh, she held many positions with the agency before moving up to the top job.

Kosma was out of the office because of a medical issue and not available for comment Wednesday, but in a prepared statement she described Walsh as a “very capable leader.”

“I have tremendous faith in her ability to pick up where I leave off and continue to fulfill the mission and vision of KVCAP,” Kosma said.

Andrea Pasco, KVCAP’s development director, said that Kosma helped develop theGerald Hotel in Fairfield, which provides affordable housing for 28 seniors and which KVCAP owns and operates. She helped develop Educare Central Maine, an early childhood program that serves more than 200 children and their families, and helped expand energy and weatherization services into Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. Kosma also helped KVCAP to convert to a new transportation services model.

Sheryl Gregory, president of KVCAP’s board of directors, said in a prepared statement that under Kosma’s leadership, the organization has continued to thrive and has provided vital services — even in tough economic times.

“She is a great role model and will be missed,” Gregory said. “We wish her well in her upcoming retirement.”

Gregory called Walsh one of the most experienced community action professionals in the state who advocates statewide for health, family, housing, social and economic-related issues.

“Her strong knowledge of community action and understanding of poverty issues has been very beneficial to our agency and partners,” Gregory said. “She shares our vision and commitment to a positive and strategic future for KVCAP. We look forward to continued work with her in her new role as CEO.”

Walsh said one of the exciting things KVCAP is involved in is the Poverty Action Coalition, formed in conjunction with the city of Waterville.

“It meets once a month to talk about what is it our community needs and people living in poverty need. What would really help them to help themselves and give them hope?” she said.

The coalition’s efforts, she said, are based on the work and first-hand knowledge of Donna Beegle, a poverty expert who spoke in Waterville last year at an event organized by KVCAP and former Mayor Karen Heck, who worked for KVCAP many years.

“We’re very excited about doing more work around the Poverty Action Coalition that has been established and giving people more opportunity instead of looking at everything as having an obstacle,” Walsh said Wednesday.

The coalition was formed to bring businesses, residents, churches, fraternal organizations and government together to get involved in finding solutions to the problems attributed to poverty.

According to the Maine Community Action Association, one in eight Mainers lives below the official poverty line — which is an income of $17,600 for a family of three — and double that amount is actually needed to make ends meet, which means one in three Mainers don’t have the income to meet basic needs.

While KVCAP exists to attack issues related to poverty, Walsh noted that the organization faces challenges in procuring and diversifying funding for its programs.

“Awareness in the community is another challenge, really educating the community about the needs,” she said. “What do children need and what do families living in poverty need? What are their obstacles?”

KVCAP created a development director’s position and this year hired Pasco for that job.

Pasco dedicates time to awareness issues, fostering relationships with donors and seeking more private funding sources, Walsh said.

With an aging population and thus more and more seniors in need of housing, KVCAP plans to look at that issue in its strategic planning to help beef up services to seniors, she said.

The agency will mark its 50th anniversary year with an outdoor family-focused event June 20 at Educare Central Maine that will include not only activities but also information about services it offers. Also this year, the KVCAP staff is conducting an assessment of the community’s needs and will work with its board of directors to develop a strategic plan to fulfill those needs, Walsh said.

KVCAP works with the Housing Authority, Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, Maine Children’s Home, Alfond Youth Center, South End Teen Center, the city, United Way of Mid-Maine, area food banks and other organizations to help provide assistance to those in need.

KVCAP is one of 10 such community action agencies in the state, all of which work to eliminate poverty and reduce the conditions or impact of poverty, Walsh said. The organizations are mandated to have governing boards made up of an equal number of members who are of low income, those from the private sector and public, elected officials.

Those other community action agencies in the state are based in Aroostook, Waldo, Franklin, York, Washington-Hancock counties as well as in Portland, Lewiston, Bath and Bangor.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

acalder@centralmaine.com

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