As part of Ohio Legal Help’s ongoing commitment to outreach to the Ohio community, we meet regularly with partners around the state. Yvonne Cherell, the first CEO of Ohio Urban Resources System (OURS), is an exemplary woman who has not only served Ohio’s communities for many years but is also a mother and respected advocate of social justice, equity and fairness. Yvonne spoke with Ohio Legal Help about the importance of trusted, affordable childcare and how it can impact families in so many ways.
Ohio Legal Help (OLH): Tell us a bit about your background, and how you became the first CEO of OURS.
Yvonne Cherell (YC): I have had a bit of an eclectic background in the nonprofit sector. For about 25 years, I have worked from a frontline provider of services to a former Executive Director of another nonprofit both in Cleveland and Columbus. Last year, I was asked to join OURS as their first full time employee and their first CEO. In my role, I run the day-to-day operations for OURS, work with consultants and a roadmap team or advisory group, build statewide partnership and manage the board of directors for 11 urban community action agencies in Ohio.
When I was younger, my passion was to become a civil rights attorney. I grew up during a time where I saw society shifting and women emerging in leadership roles. I’ve always wanted to lift up others’ voices, so I thought becoming a civil rights attorney would be a great fit for me. From a very early age, I have understood the importance of people being able to advocate for themselves. Later in life, I became pregnant with my son, and, at that time, law school did not seem like an achievable goal. I did receive my undergraduate degree in political science which still connected me to advocacy and fighting for equitable justice. Working at a nonprofit has allowed me to focus on my passion of fairness and equality, while keeping me connected to public policy and advocacy. While I didn’t achieve my goal of becoming an attorney, the rewards have been far greater through serving Ohio’s families and using my voice on behalf of others. Often, pivots in life can lead to an even greater path.
OLH: Tell us about the work and mission of OURS.
YC: In the early 1980s, community action agencies recognized that because Ohio is such a unique landscape with many large urban areas, there was a need to address the large diversity that was growing in Ohio. OURS was incorporated in 1985 to represent the needs and interests of Ohio urban poor families and residents.
OURS agencies represent 56 percent of the state's total population and 62 percent of those households that are living at or below the Federal Poverty Level. We seek to reduce the number of households living in poverty so that no family experiences food insecurity or housing challenges and all are able earn a livable wage. Today, the statewide network is comprised of eleven community action agencies representing the largest urban counties in Ohio. We are a leading resource in strengthening the social and economic security of families and their communities.
OLH: COVID-19 has changed the availability of childcare for many people. Tell us about the importance of affordable, trustworthy childcare and the current state of childcare services in Ohio.
YC: Along with OURS’ rich history, community action agencies have served Ohio’s children and families for well over 60 years. Community action agencies were founded during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration as an initiative to fight back against poverty. Here in Ohio, OURS community action agencies graduate approximately 3,000 children a year from our Head Start programs. These programs have been a staple in Ohio for years, and it prepares children for kindergarten and school-age socialization. Affordable and trustworthy childcare is not only important for children, but for their families and the community as well. Safe environments that allow children to learn, play and grow lead to development of skills that will allow them to have success later in life.
OLH: How does a lack of childcare affect other legal issues, such as employment and housing?
YC: We know that many of Ohio’s households do not have the standard 3 months of assets saved up, so any unexpected problem, like medical issues or loss of income, can catapult families into poverty. Oftentimes, these families do not know how to survive because they have not been in that scenario before, and they are in constant crisis mode. In 2018, we noticed that OURS’ communities were home to more than 55 percent of Ohio’s population, including over 1 million Ohioans living in poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened this issue that was already present.
Parents, especially single parents, are struggling to either stay home or go to work. With increasing costs of childcare due to inflation, how are they supposed to afford childcare? Enabling more parents to work by providing childcare can help mitigate the livable wage gap, particularly for mothers who, according to the Pew Research Center, still only earn 84 percent in comparison to their male counterpart.
In my time spent with the National Association of Women Business Owners, we have spoken at length about the heavy load of childcare that falls on women. Particularly during the pandemic, women have a balancing act of maintaining an income outside of the home and providing care to their children in addition to all the other domestic responsibilities that often fall on women. I myself spent the majority of my parenthood as a single mother and had to provide for my son primarily on my own.
Quality childcare and early education is critical because it supports our economic structure in the short and long term. Working mothers and fathers are more productive when they know their children are in a safe environment. Children who have early education and socialization are twice as likely to continue their education and participate in the workforce, which strengthens economic security for all families.
Without a doubt, lack of childcare is a hinderance to a child’s development and creates additional barriers and instability. Exposure to poverty can lead to other legal issues related to employment, food and housing. OURS community action agencies have partnered with local legal aid organizations and statewide resources like Ohio Legal Help to help families get the legal help they need. In Franklin County alone, IMPACT Community Action Agency has gone from helping 300 renters in 2019, to over 20,000 during the pandemic. This shows the need for a tapestry of services to help Ohio communities.
OLH: What do community action agencies do to help parents with childcare?
YC: I am a former Head Start parent. In 1995, my son attended his first Head Start program and we absolutely loved it. He was surrounded by great educators, learned so much, and as a parent, I felt very much a part of the program. I later served as a Parent Involvement Coordinator for one of the largest Head Start programs in Cleveland and I was most impressed with the way in which we served with a holistic perspective.
For example, any time parents found themselves in need of weatherization or assistance with a utility bill, my fellow coordinators and I would get together as a team to address the issue holistically and allow their children to continue to thrive. If problems like these are taken care of, then parents can be fully present with their children. I have always attributed community action agencies with providing a plethora of services that improves the quality of life for so many Ohioans.
Coming full circle, my son graduated from a Head Start program, did very well in school, went on to college and is now the Housing Navigation Director at IMPACT Community Action Agency. Our story really shows what amazing things can happen when communities invest in children and families.
OLH: What other services and resources are community action agencies offering to help people rebuild after the COVID-19 pandemic? For instance, Ohio Legal Help assisted over 111,000 users with eviction issues, including 20,000 users with the CDC Eviction Moratorium Form and 15,000 referrals to emergency rental assistance.
YC: In March 2020, the whole world was hit with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Community action agencies stayed open during those uncertain times to ensure that people had access to those necessary services we provide to combat poverty. One of the services we ramped up during the pandemic is the emergency rental assistance due to state and federal funding. OURS community action agencies to date have kept over 40,000 Ohioans in their homes during the pandemic.
Community action agencies also provide weatherization assistance, and there is one story that has stuck with me about a young man from the Youngstown area who was able to get help to save over 100 dollars a month on utility bills. It saved a generational home and was properly insulated and safe for his children.
Historically, African Americans have not received preventive or culturally competent care for health issues and have used emergency rooms as their primary form of healthcare. OURS has wanted to pivot from emergency rooms and build trust with healthcare providers so that Black Ohioans can receive the right care before it’s an emergency. The Pathways Hub was created to ensure that the necessary resources and services are in place to support clients in overcoming barriers to accessing health care. A growing number of OURS agencies are critical Pathways Hub stations helping to address the social determinants of health to improve health outcomes.
In 2021, we ran a public service announcement campaign about getting vaccinated against COVID-19. We did this to address not only the lack of access to getting the vaccine, but the mistrust of healthcare providers and the vaccine itself amongst the Black community. We also declared racism a public health crisis and committed to improving communities and systems for Black Ohioans and communities of color. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, I was concerned more about the diagnosis and my treatment as a Black woman than I was fearful of not surviving. This is a reality for many Black Ohioans, and I am proud that OURS community action agencies have understood their role as a trusted entity in the community.
OLH: Anything else you’d like to add?
YC: I just want to thank Ohio Legal Help for this opportunity to speak on behalf of the OURS community action agencies. Poverty is a complex issue and there is no one size fits all solution but that is why community action agencies were designed based on localities. Each community has unique problems, and each agency is positioned to respond to their needs. OURS agencies are committed to continuing the work and we recognize all of our frontline workers who have been transforming the lives of Ohioans.