Melina Gilbert works with people who are at the end of their financial rope. Through Lake County Community Network, a partnership of churches, the nonprofit’s executive director is rallying resources to help them begin to rebuild their lives and regain their financial independence.
LCCN recently made a critical change in the way it assists people who are behind on their bills. In the past, people had to present a disconnection notice to get help with a utility payment, or show an eviction notice to get money for their rent. That’s no longer the case.
“Our system set people up for failure by making them wait until the very last minute to get help,” Gilbert says. “So if you have a disconnection notice on a gas bill and you’ve been on the Percentage of Income Payment Plan program for 10 years, when you’re disconnected, you have to pay that full PIPP balance from 10 years. I’ve seen balances as high as $15,000. There is nothing anyone can really do at that point. It’s too high. I would much rather someone come to me and say, ‘I can’t pay my $20 PIPP payment this month,’ than wait 30 days until they’re disconnected and have to pay this huge amount.”
While pride and fear of embarrassment can be factors that prevent people from seeking out help right away, that’s not the biggest issue that Gilbert is seeing.
“What I see is people are more willing to go to a church for help than to go to an agency,” Gilbert says. “They’re coming to us sooner because they are going to a church ahead of time. Say they’re going to a food pantry and they are talking with whoever is working the food pantry. ‘I’m really struggling this month, I don’t know how I’m going to pay my electric bill. Can I get a little extra food?’ It’s easier for people to go outside of the mainstream for assistance. With us, they get that personal conversation.”
LCCN was incorporated in 1999 as the Lake County Church Network. A group of pastors from churches across the county wanted to create an organization that could help people who felt they had nowhere else to turn.
“When we first started, we were the best-kept secret in Lake County,” Gilbert says. “You could only get to us through a referral. Our office was in a church basement and we couldn’t see people face to face. In 2013, we moved out into the community and started doing a lot more community events, participating in different programs, partnering with places like the Lake County ADAMHS (Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services) Board and Crossroads, which provides behavioral health services for children, adolescents and young adults. We wanted to signify that we were a community organization, not just a church organization.”
The name was changed to Lake County Community Network and the nonprofit’s reach broadened. In 2007, when Gilbert took over for the previous executive director, the nonprofit was seeing about 200 requests a year. By 2017, the number of yearly requests had grown to 1,100.
“We started out with 10 churches,” Gilbert says. “Currently we have 62 partner churches in the county, but there are a lot more churches we need to get involved. We have both large and small churches across all denominations. We have small churches that maybe have 25 congregants and very large churches, like St. John Vianney in Mentor, that have thousands of people. It’s like the stone soup story. Nobody has enough money to help alone. But if you combine it all, you can make a huge difference.”
Moments of renewed faith
A year ago, Gilbert was quite concerned about LCCN’s future capacity to continue doing its work. However, a new strategic plan has her more encouraged about what lies ahead, and what the nonprofit and its member churches can do to help.
“We’re just looking at how we are going to get funding to help clients that come from outside of the churches,” she says. “The churches are willing to help with operating, but they can’t do both to the extent that they are. So if we can get more grants to help directly pay client assistance, churches can help more operationally.”
Gilbert is hopeful that she’ll be able to hire another employee in the near future and develop new classes to help people with things like creating a sound budget or learning to cook at a low cost. She admits there are times when her faith is tested. LCCN is helping people in their most desperate hour. Some of them are also battling chemical dependency and mental health concerns.
“It just seems like God puts people in the mix that renew my faith in what I do,” Gilbert says. “I’ll go for a week where it’s just one horribly sad story after another. Then I’ll get a call from a past client who says, ‘Melina, I just wanted to call to say I’m doing really great. Thanks to the help you gave me two years ago, I’m going to college. I’m on my own two feet and I’m not living with my parents anymore.’ It’s those little things that pop up that remind us what a difference we can make in peoples’ lives.” ●
How to reach: Lake County Community Network, (440) 954-9934 or www.lccnohio.org