$100 million Sentara, LISC partnership begins with financial literacy and job training

It was early October when Sentara announced it had partnered with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation on a $100 million multi-year effort to make Hampton Roads healthier.

Sentara and its insurance subsidiary Optima Health pledged to contribute $50 million toward the effort to be matched by LISC, including $10 million in cash (about $1 million annually for the next 10 years) and $40 million worth of loans or loan guarantees to build affordable housing.

Christine Morris joined in January to be the director of LISC Hampton Roads. Her first three months were spent formalizing the financial arrangement with Sentara and the strategy, finding additional partners and rolling out the group’s first financial opportunity centers. Then, the pandemic hit.

“The long-term strategy remains the same,” Morris said, repeating the group’s mission to invest in communities that have long gone without any investment in them.

LISC is a national nonprofit that pools government and private money to help local groups in 45 states work on issues such as housing, jobs, education, safety and health. Since March, the national organization has offered several rounds of small business relief grants and more than 50 businesses in Virginia have received over $600,000, Morris said.

The pandemic interrupted some of the group’s plans, but “we haven’t let that stop us,” she said.

The group opened one of its financial opportunity centers in Norfolk inside the Workforce Development Center off Military Highway in July and plans to open a second in Newport News at the Brooks Crossing Center. At each site, the group will offer career training, financial coaching and benefit enhancement guidance to help people get all the benefits they are eligible for to maximize their income, including the earned income tax credit and child-care credits.

The group has provided a $303,715 grant to the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, which partnered with the Urban League to expand existing programs at the new centers.

It’s the first time LISC has put one of its financial opportunity centers inside a workforce investment agency. Usually, they are combined with a neighborhood-based organization that already offers financial counseling.

The workforce council and Urban League have each hired two new staff members for the center. While career training is the council’s “sweet spot” and the Urban League has offered programs in financial literacy, the four staff members will be expected to help with everything the center will offer.

“We’ll kind of be jacks of all trades in that,” said Shawn Avery, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council.

Morris said the nonprofit doesn’t reinvent the wheel, partnering with existing organizations to augment what they’re doing.

So far, the training is open only to the 16 women enrolled in the Hampton Roads Workforce Council’s three-month skilled-trades program to prepare them for careers in ship repair and shipbuilding, a program that was underway when LISC got involved.

Avery said those participants would be part of a pilot program to launch the financial opportunity center, but he expected to begin referring people who may need the help beginning Oct. 1. He’s still working out how to recruit for the program. Like many offices and agencies, the Virginia Career Works office has been limited to appointment-only access amid the pandemic.

Morris said she expects the financial opportunity centers to eventually help 100 to 150 people a year. Tracking its success will be counselors who follow up with participants on their jobs, wages, savings, credit scores and ability to buy a house or other large asset. The program can last multiple years, and ultimately she said she hopes to see people come back after getting a job, starting a career and needing more workforce training to keep rising up the financial ladder.

Avery said he’s seen a shift in the help being sought from the council, in general, since the pandemic started.

“We were really playing the defense game, in the beginning,” he said, connecting people with the Virginia Employment Commission for unemployment benefits. Recently, more people are looking to change careers or get new training.

“It’s starting to turn around now,” he said.

LISC is also helping the Urban League as that group leads the We Care Hampton Roads Rebuild Project aimed at providing grants of up to $10,000 to small and minority-owned businesses in need during the pandemic. Dominion Energy has pledged $200,000 toward the Hampton Roads effort and $400,000 to another in Richmond. Hampton Roads businesses can apply beginning Oct. 1.

Morris said she hopes to establish a fund early next year to begin affordable housing projects and housing to assist residents in health predicaments with the $40 million pledged from Sentara and LISC’s matching promise.