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Stimulus gives some in community a boost

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Thalena Dittmar reads a book Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009, at her apartment in Bloomington. (The Pantagraph/CARLOS T. MIRANDA)

BLOOMINGTON - Thalena Dittmar thought her life was on the right track a couple of years ago. She had landed a new job and was about to get her first apartment.

But the apartment deal fell through and two days later she was laid off from work.

"I went into a deep depression for six months," she said. "I slept non-stop."

When she did go to a job interview, she said employers could see she didn't have any self confidence. "I didn't have any spark," she said. "Basically I was out there (in the job market) without any skills."

After "bombing" her 20th interview, she knew her life had to change.

She remembered a pamphlet she picked up about a month earlier with information about the Essentials Program at Heartland Community College. The intensive 16-week course is designed to give students skills they need to join the workforce in business, information technology or manufacturing.

Dittmar, 26, started the program in August 2008 and graduated in December. She now has a job, an apartment, her first car in five years, and a plan to work toward a degree as a registered nurse.

"My life has changed but most importantly, my attitude toward life has changed," she said. "I have goals I never dreamed I would. Without the (Essentials) program I wouldn't be where I am or the person I am."

The Essentials Program is one of several area programs getting a piece of $1.2 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through Mid Central Community Action.

Pam Westerdahl, director of Heartland's work force service, hopes to expand the Essentials Program with $20,000 in additional federal money. The program and a Pell grant cover all student costs, including books, transportation expenses, supplies and even child care when applicable.

Back to work

"We are trying some innovative things to help get people back to work or ready to re-enter the workforce," said Cathy Grafton, director of community services at Mid Central Community Action, which serves families living in poverty in McLean and Livingston counties.

Some of the programs receiving money include: vocational scholarships; employment/vocational needs assistance; second-chance renters; small business loans; financial literacy for adults and youth; and homeless prevention.

Tiffany Harris of Bloomington knows first hand the direct effects of some of the programs.

In December, she and her 11-year-old became homeless.

"We were staying here and there," she said. "I wondered if we would have a place to stay the next day."

Harris called Community Action to get help with a deposit and the first month's rent for an apartment and learned about the agency's transitional housing program. It has limited apartments and only charges 30 percent of the renter's income each month with a minimum of $300 and a maximum of $500.

Becky Berry, community services caseworker at Community Action, said, as luck would have it, a three-bedroom apartment soon became available and Harris and her daughter were chosen for it.

But there was a snag. Someone had charged $800 to Harris' former electric bill and another $800 to her former natural gas account.

"I had to have those paid off before I could move," she said.

Berry "scrambled around" to find money from a variety of Community Action sources to help pay off the bills, allowing Harris and her daughter to get into the transitional housing.

About the same time, Harris landed a job. Berry said employment/vocational needs assistant money paid for Harris' work uniforms and clothing to go to cosmetology school. Harris now has an application into the vocational scholarship program to get enough money for a computer for school.

She also gets help with child care expenses while she attends night classes.

"It's made it a lot better," said Harris. "It's taken a weight off my shoulders. My daughter has her own room, she getting good grades and now can have her friends over.

"It's the most content I've been in my life."

How to get help

To qualify for any of the Mid Central Community Action programs receiving funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, McLean or Livingston county residents must meet income guidelines:

For most programs, the maximum is $44,100 annually for a family of four.

For homeless prevention programs, McLean County residents cannot make more than $37,750 annually for a family of four; Livingston County residents can't earn more than $30,900 for a family of four.

-- For more information, visit McLean County residents also can call Community Action in Bloomington at 309-829-0691; Livingston County residents can call the Pontiac office at 815-844-3201.

-- For information about Heartland Community College's Essentials Program, call 309-268-8034

-- Futures Unlimited in Pontiac can be reached at 815-842-1122 or


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