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Thanks to a commonsense Bucks County program, these grads no longer qualify for public assistance - and are now helping others

“What we see in people is that little spark, that ‘maybe I can do that.’ It’s up to us to help them believe they can - because no one’s ever told them that before.”

The newest graduates of the Bucks County Opportunity Center's economic self-sufficiency program were honored at a ceremony at Northampton Valley Country Club in Richboro in October.
The newest graduates of the Bucks County Opportunity Center's economic self-sufficiency program were honored at a ceremony at Northampton Valley Country Club in Richboro in October.Read moreAaron Mitchell Photography

About a decade ago, when Erin Lukoss was an economic self-sufficiency coach at the Bucks County Opportunity Council (BCOC), a new client said she wanted to become a nurse. But there was one big, long, looming problem.

The Burlington-Bristol Bridge.

The woman lived in Pennsylvania. The nursing courses she needed were in New Jersey. She didn’t have a car to get there — and even if she did, she was terrified to drive over the bridge.

So Lukoss helped her get a car, then accompanied her on dozens of drives back and forth over the Delaware River.

“We went over that bridge a lot, until she felt safe and could do it by herself,” recalled Lukoss, who is now the council’s CEO and executive director. “She faced her fear. When she graduated, there were no family members there, but we were.”

BCOC is all about bridges, connecting people with the right resources and helping them flourish.

Founded in 1965, the agency has an audacious mission to not just to serve the poor, but also to coach them out of poverty for good. One way the council does this is through its Economic Self-Sufficiency Program, in which a counselor works one-on-one with a client to identify — and smash through — the precise obstacles thwarting his or her self-sufficiency.

“Every client is different,” said Mary Finch, a senior BCOC self-sufficiency counselor. “I helped someone pay for a horse-riding certificate to become a horse trainer. I’ve done dental assistance, paid a pediatric care bill, or a home payment here or there. It’s amazing what a difference a Walmart card or a gas card can make. We help clients get off government subsidies, pay their bills, maybe have a little leftover to live the American dream.”

While the median income in Bucks County is about $96,000 for a family of three, more than 38,000 residents — about 6% — live below the federal poverty line. They find their way to BCOC when they can’t pay a utility bill, or are facing eviction, or can’t feed their families. Setbacks that might seem small to those with resources can quickly devastate those who are struggling. The unexpected repair to the car needed to commute to work might eat up the rent.

“It can quickly spiral out of control,” Lukoss said. “If someone comes to us who is motivated to learn how to be self-sufficient, we jump at the chance to work with them.”

Since BCOC’s program began in 1997, about 350 people have successfully “graduated,” taking anywhere from one to five years to meet their education or training goals; find full-time employment, reliable transportation and housing; manage a budget; and be free of welfare benefits.

On a recent weeknight, 15 BCOC clients celebrated their newly gained economic self-sufficiency during a ceremony at the Northampton Valley Country Club in Richboro. Some grew emotional as they shared their stories.

Kathy Selis-Ayala, who was raised in the foster care system, was juggling three jobs and taking classes at Bucks County Community College when BCOC helped her with tuition, home expenses, and car insurance. She is now employed full-time as an aide in the county’s Children and Youth programs.

Holly Kennedy needed a car to attend classes at Bucks County Community College. BCOC found her one through its Wheelz to Work program. She is now a registered nurse, and she and her daughter are living in their own apartment for the first time in five years. When BCOC asked Holly if her daughter needed school supplies at the start of the academic year, Holly laughed and said, “Absolutely not!” Now, she plans to adopt a BCOC family and help them become independent, too.

Kevin Hecht, 32, contacted BCOC in October 2018 and in one year became one of its biggest success stories. A hockey injury had introduced Hecht to opioids, and he graduated from pain medications to “everything else across the board.” He bounced in and out of jail and treatment centers for years.

Then his wife, who also struggled with addiction, overdosed. She was in a coma for 17 days before Hecht chose to remove her from life support. He lay in her hospital bed with her for hours until she took her last breath in his arms. He left the hospital, went to a bar, and immediately ended up in jail after a fight.

“I didn’t have any hopes,” Hecht said. “The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten through this whole life, in and out of treatment, was to shut up and listen. I figured I’d try something new and see if they could help me in any way.”

Hecht used a BCOC scholarship to finish his Certified Recovery Specialist certificate at Penn State-Abington, and BCOC helped pay his rent so he could focus on his studies. He now works as a market development manager at a recovery center. He has remarried, and just purchased a house in Northeast Philadelphia.

“They helped me get my life in order,” he said of BCOC. “I owe everything to them in a way.”

Emily Citron, 38, was a single mother of three living in Section 8 housing and making $9 an hour when she found BCOC. Within five years, she earned a bachelor’s degree from West Chester University and a master’s from Widener University. She’s now employed full-time as a social worker.

“The opportunity council filled in the gaps where I couldn’t,” she said. “They paid my car insurance for six months so I didn’t have to worry about it. They paid my rent for one month so I could catch up on bills. I had Christmas gifts for my children, back-to-school [supplies], grocery cards, Walmart gift cards.

“I’m off of [Section 8] housing and it feels great. My income has more than tripled. I never thought I’d make this much money. I can hold my head high when I go into job interviews and tell them about my education and my background and how much I need to make.”

Finch, who usually juggles between 20 and 30 clients, said what set the graduates apart from others who struggle was their willingness to work hard.

“Self-pity won’t work," she said. "I’m not going to spend time with people who don’t want to do things for themselves.”

Breaking the cycle of poverty is difficult, said Lukoss, but doing so creates a ripple effect that carries down through the generations. Case in point: That client with the fear of bridges? She continued her education and currently works in health-service administration.

“Her kids are going to college now. That was something that was never encouraged in her family,” said Lukoss. “What we see in people is that little spark, that ‘Maybe I can do that.’ It’s up to us to help them believe they can — because no one’s ever told them that before.”