Lutheran Social Services Equips Kosciusko County for Financial Stability
Lutheran Social Services of Indiana (LSSI) has been involved in Kosciusko County for 20 years, though it’s been serving other counties in the state since 1901. In 1926, an LSSI program called Cup of Kindness came to life, which would eventually expand to influence our local neighborhoods through the Operation Round Up grant. Kosciusko REMC is dedicated to the community, through our grant and so much more. Without programs like Cup of Kindness, our community would have nowhere to turn for basic needs of living.
KREMC had the opportunity to sit down with Kristy Stanley, director of intakes & grants manager, and Cindi Knepper, an LSSI staff member who works in Kosciusko County, to talk about the impact that Operation Round Up is making through Cup of Kindness. We hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we did!
KREMC Interviewer: How did this Operation Round Up grant help LSSI meet needs in our community?
Kristi Stanley: The grant has really benefitted the clients we serve in Kosciusko County. Cindi sees that firsthand and she’s passionate about the work that she does.
Cindi Knepper: Lutheran Social Services is committing to connection. That means involvement in homes, families, and other agencies. If our community’s great services weren’t connected, we each would be an island to ourselves. By bringing all our gifts to the table, we can make so much more of an impact. That’s what the secret is – connection and commitment to quality. Community funding means so much when you’re out there doing the work. It matters to us. I take pride in that because if your own community is buying in, it means you’re doing something right.
Stanley: The wonderful thing about REMC is the flexibility. The funds are flexible, so we can use them to fill the greatest need. REMC asked where the gap was, and we answered: food! Kosciusko County doesn’t have the same food bank resources that surrounding counties do, so the REMC grant allowed us to purchase Walmart gift cards. It’s really helping to fill an emergent food need, and it gives us time to work on a more permanent solution for a family in need.
All our budgets have been hit by the increase in food costs. I was trying to figure out what would realistically get a family of four through for a week, and it was close to $150 for just the basics. Food costs have gone up so high, it hits families hard. That’s the beauty of the REMC grant because they’ve said yes, go ahead! Buy gift cards and get food to those families. There’s dignity in that for our clients because they can go shop at Walmart and not always have to go with what’s available at the food pantry.
KREMC has gone beyond paying electric bills. You’re looking at other needs. Families may be using their money for food to cover other basic needs, and then they can’t buy food. Food stamps don’t go very far. When bad weather closes school, families aren’t always prepared for that. It’s so great to have Operation Round Up as an additional resource so we can help families with their shopping and meal planning, and then look at how we can help when it happens again.
Knepper: I’ve seen the moms receiving help cry. They say it’s just been hard and there’s no bread, milk, or eggs in the pantry. I count it a gift and a privilege to be in their home and help them through this with REMC. It takes such a weight off their back and lets them think about other things. They can work out a plan because their mind is no longer constantly racing with wondering how they’re going to feed their kids.
A long time ago we had a program every month where we sold bread. Some people would say, “I only sold 10 loaves of bread,” but that’s $40 and that fills up a client’s tank for gas. I never want to minimize a donation or a rounded-up electric bill, because if you have 50 people that give a dollar, that’s a tank of gas or a bus pass for a month. You can still make an impact without donating thousands of dollars. It really adds up, and it’s having a phenomenal impact on families.
Stanley: When you’re hungry and not sure if your kids are going to be fed, nothing else is important. What I feed my kids for dinner tonight isn’t a priority of mine because I know I have food in the fridge. But if you don’t know if you’re going to be evicted or if you’ll have lights or food, you’re not going to get anywhere. People aren’t motivated toward self-sufficiency until those needs are met. That helps Cindi do her job more long-term, and it helps people cross those barriers.
KREMC Interviewer: Take me back to LSSI’s beginnings. How did Cup of Kindness get started?
Stanley: LSSI was founded by a pastor in Allen County in 1901. He would go to church and see a baby sitting on the front steps. As a result, someone in the congregation would come to church with two kids and go home with three kids. This happened for a while, and then the community realized they couldn’t take any more kids. That’s how he started Lutheran Social Services as an adoption service, and shortly thereafter Cup of Kindness came in.
Historically, Cup of Kindness assisted in emergency situations. If someone ran into a crisis and needed help with a bill, we would pay it. Because of the volume of people, they needed a referral to see us. We did that for quite a while, then around 2009 or 2010, we started to look at financial stability. You can teach people lesson after lesson, but is it really changing a family’s behavior? We realized that one-time emergency assistance wasn’t having the impact that we wanted to have. We didn’t want to be a band-aid organization. LSSI is about long-term impact.
So, we added a financial stability component through Cup of Kindness. We’re heavily involved in Allen County, and Cindi does a lot of work in Kosciusko County. Through Cup of Kindness, we work on financial coaching – money management, understanding your money, and why you spend money the way that you do. We look at why their budget isn’t balanced and, for most of our families, it’s just the lack of income, or maybe their debt is too high. Right now, we’re seeing a massive increase in monthly rent costs. I just spoke to a family whose rent went from $650 to $900 a month, and when you’re on a fixed income, that’s impossible. Our goal is to help them move forward.
KREMC Interviewer: How did the gift cards provided by Operation Round Up contribute to helping families become more financially stable?
Stanley: LSSI receives the grant for Cup of Kindness, but it’s specifically given to the clients in Kosciusko County. Those families have a variety of needs and barriers. Since we were using the gift cards to meet a basic need and there’s budgeting required to go with it, it made sense to us to filter the funds through Cup of Kindness so we could track its impact on the families.
If a family has identified an emergent food need, this food gift card will help get them through as we work on their budget with them and get resources in place. LSSI serves about 15-16 counties in Northeast Indiana. Teaching financial stability while meeting emergent needs is a model we follow in all our programs.
We’re very proud of Cup of Kindness, and it’s not something many organizations provide. We look at every aspect of credit, debit, and savings to help our families.
KREMC Interviewer: What kinds of partnerships does LSSI have with other community nonprofits?
Stanley: We partner very closely with a lot of other agencies because we can’t do this without them. We don’t have the funds to duplicate services, so we rely on each other. Sometimes an individual might need their rent paid, so we’ll get $100 from one place, $75 from another, and a portion from LSS. We have to do that to help families. We advocate for them, but our goal is that they find their voice so they can start advocating for themselves and get their needs met.
The Operation Round Up grant was especially impactful in rural areas where there are not a lot of options for food banks and other resources. Our communities know what we do and love the work we do, so it’s very positive and we continue to work in that county.
KREMC Interviewer: What does the process of getting involved in Cup of Kindness look like?
Stanley: Let’s say Cindi has a family she’s working with and they’re in debt. The program where Cindi is working works on self-sufficiency, not just the financial component, but parenting, employment, and housing. It could be a family that really needs some individualized attention on the finance part, so she may ask us to do that so she can take care of the rest. That person would then be referred to us. They have to agree to the coaching part because we’re not just going to pay a bill. It needs to be more in-depth. Our staff gets in contact with them and does an intake over the phone. We learn about their history with money and get to know them.
People are very proud and private with their money. I grew up as a farmer’s daughter and understood that you never tell anyone what you have or how much you have. People are embarrassed that they’ve gotten themselves into a situation sometimes, but we don’t judge people on their spending. We serve people with ample income that still struggle to make ends meet, and we serve people with no income. There is no income criterion for our program; they just have to be willing to work toward making those changes to become more financially stable.
KREMC Interviewer: Once a family is introduced to Cup of Kindness, how do you forge a lasting relationship that will equip them for their future?
Stanley: We typically meet with families one-on-one in our office, the library, coffee shops, or anywhere we can that’s private enough. We can do virtual meetings and sometimes we do check-ins on the phone. It can be anywhere from a six to 12-month program, but we have some clients who stay in the program for quite some time because they need additional guidance. It’s designed to meet the need of the person we’re working with. We follow financial stability model – we first look at education: what do they understand about money? Do they even have a bank? Do they know the importance of putting money in savings? Getting them away from predatorial lenders, payday loans, and other things is a priority.
Then we shift. One of my staff members and I are certified financial coach educators. It’s really about looking at the behavior and applying what you learn. We know success when we start seeing the debt go down and the savings go up. We can see the income and the credit score go up. Eventually, they’re stabilizing their situation and meeting basic needs.
We had a bulk of clients that had gone through the program in the past who called us during COVID, asking how to spend their stimulus money because they were financially okay, and they didn’t know what to do with the money. We saw a lot more health concerns than financial concerns. It spoke a lot to our model, our staff, and the relationship we have with clients.
That’s how we’ve been able to take this model and use it for our clients in Kosciusko County to help meet those needs.
Cindi provides a home-based service, helping them secure food stamps and housing, find a job, start therapy, or advocate in school systems. Whatever barrier that family identifies – those are the goals they set, and that’s what Cindi works with them on. It’s a six-month program, but when the six months are up, they can turn around and get right back into the program again.
KREMC Interviewer: What have you learned about working with families in need through this program?
Stanley: Nine of our programs are voluntary, and only one is court-ordered. Once our clients realize that we are truly here to advocate for them, they start to let their guard down. We’re not here to judge them. We’re just here to help and provide support. I tell them that I’m not their mom, friend, or neighbor. I don’t know anything about their personal life, so I’m not going to provide any advice or “I told you so.” We’re unbiased support that’s strictly all for them.
Families can be very intimidated by a school system. If we have children on an individualized education plan, like special education, going into meetings with the school can be daunting. We go with them to help advocate for their child.
You know your child better than anybody else on this planet, so you’re going to know what’s going to work and what isn’t going to work. It’s giving them a voice, and once they trust us and we build that relationship, that’s when we start to see change happen. They start to feel confident and comfortable, and they know what our intentions are.
Even with the court-ordered programs, clients come into the programs not wanting anything to do with us, but because of the way that our organization is structured, they often let their guard down and start seeing us as an ally.
KREMC Interviewer: How can your surrounding communities support LSSI?
Stanley: We can’t do what we do without funding. Continue to round up your electric bill. Talk with organizations, find out their needs, and discover where the gaps are. Communities who don’t understand the population might have wrong ideas about what they think people need, so it’s vital to talk with organizations and agencies to find out, just like REMC uses rounded-up funds to meet real needs.
We want the community to understand those who are really hurting among them. A lot of times it’s not because of something they did or didn’t do. Sometimes it’s generational, sometimes it's situational, and sometimes it's because of domestic violence. Squash the stereotypes of people who are receiving government assistance. There is so much trauma going on with addiction, mental health, and domestic violence.
If it were me, who’s to say I wouldn’t be in the same situation? I don’t have to worry about being homeless or hungry, but if I did have that worry, there’s no telling what I would do to make sure my kids are safe and fed. It could be the person sitting next to you in church or their granddaughter or son, and you would never know. We aim to help the community understand this population and, instead of judging them, show grace and compassion.
Our front desk gets angry calls from people, and I always tell them that when people are desperate, they’re going to do whatever it takes to get a need met. We’re going to show them grace and compassion and direct them to those who can help them.
I think we’re the best hidden secret, especially since we're primarily in Allen County. We don’t have an office in Kosciusko County, so we’re working on getting the word out. Families shouldn’t have to struggle like they are. It’s not about paying a bill, it’s really not. We’ve found that case management and supportive services are essential to getting people out of a bad situation. It takes a staff person working with a family to pay rent and provide supportive services. It’s about coming together.