Until mid-March, neither Carmen Torres-Kinerk nor Elizabeth Prado had heard of Joining Forces for Families or that the nonprofit was located across from Leopold Elementary School on Fitchburg’s border with Madison.

Now, it’s their job to tell other people all about JFF – and any other organization or resource in the community available to help those struggling with bills, finding a job or keeping their children busy.

The pair are Neighborhood Navigators for the North Fish Hatchery Road corridor, employed part-time through a Dane County grant.

“We’re learning a lot,” Torres-Kinerk said. “I’m really blown away at all of the resources that are available.

“I’ve never been in a community that I’ve seen that.”

The county’s $19,562 in funding is related to the “Early Childhood Zone” surrounding Leopold, an area where a group of Dane County service providers helps neighborhood families with young kids. The positions are new this year and offer 14 hours per week at $12.50 per hour to conduct outreach and connect residents to their city government.

City community development planner Wade Thompson said the county has funded navigators in other areas, and it was an idea city staff had been considering for the past couple of years. When the county suggested starting the program in Fitchburg, city staff jumped at the chance.

“They approached us, said, ‘We have $20,000 to pay two navigators for a year to do neighborhood work, would you guys be interested?’” Thompson said. “Of course we said yeah.”

Prado is originally from Mexico, and has lived in the Fitchburg area for four years after coming to the United States 14 years ago. Torres-Kinerk moved here about a year ago after living on the west coast.

So far, the pair has tried to get the word out at meetings hosted by JFF, Leopold school, City of Madison Neighborhood Resource Teams and county-run nonprofit Centro Hispano, “trying to find a place where neighborhood residents frequent quite a bit,” Thompson said.

Prado knows the importance of finding resources like afterschool programming because she has two children, one of whom attends Leopold. She also understands they need productive activities – as do rest of the kids in the neighborhood.

“They can have something to do, and they need that in my neighborhood,” she said. “(I want people) to feel comfortable so they can know I’m there to help with anything that I can do for them.”

Thompson, who is overseeing the program, said the two “don’t need to be the resource, they just need to know who the resource is.” He said government can be intimidating for people who don’t know what services are available or how it functions.

Getting over that hurdle and increasing engagement will be key this summer, Thompson said, as the city considers plans for a “neighborhood hub” near the Nine Springs Golf Course area. He said “traditional engagement” strategies typically don’t get the type of feedback the city wants.

“These guys being at a grassroots level, I think they’ll really engage with the neighborhood and get us good feedback on what that hub might look like and then hopefully produce some plans that really reflect neighborhood desires,” Thompson said.

Torres-Kinerk is hopeful that the program will also create connections within the community and create a place where people look out for each other.

“Everything is rush, rush, and everything is so me, me, me; it’s nice to be part of something that maybe can help bring people together again,” Torres-Kinerk said. “We’ve lost that, I think.”

Making connections

Health programs like free clinic visits are something “everybody can use,” Torres-Kinerk pointed out.

But not everybody knows how to access them or that they even exist. That’s where she and Prado hope to reach residents who could benefit from preventative measures before something becomes an emergency, whether it’s a medical issue or one of housing or childcare.

Prado and Torres-Kinerk plan to gather pamphlets for area organizations and have the information ready to present as they come across someone with a question. In the process, Torres-Kinerk said, she hopes to make connections herself.

“I wanted to get to know my community a little bit better,” Torres-Kinerk said. “And get more involved. Being from bigger cities, I did not have very much involvement in where I’ve lived before.”

Prado, who lives in the Coho Street area near Leopold, has a simple goal for her community: “Be together.”

Healthy neighborhoods

The navigator program is the next step in the city’s Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative, which began three years ago and is still in a pilot stage.

The initiative has six pillars: education, life skills, care, mobility, healthy lifestyles and healthy landscapes.

It’s focused on three neighborhoods: Verona Road West, Belmar/Renaissance on the Park – both near Verona Road on the city’s west side – and North Fish Hatchery Road. So far, the program has provided grants to nonprofits that work in those neighborhoods, but Thompson is hopeful the navigators program can be a next step in helping neighborhoods with a larger impoverished population and those home to more people of color.

“I think this could really be a model for our other neighborhoods,” Thompson said.

That would require ongoing funding, which has not yet been discussed. But if the program is successful in improving outcomes in the pillar areas, Thompson is hopeful they can work toward that in the future.

“What you’re talking about is this idea of building community,” Thompson said. “As we talk about our broader initiative, that’s really what it’s premised on is building this sense of community and togetherness.”

Contact Scott Girard at ungreporter@wcinet.com and follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.