By LINDA HARRIS
WEIRTON - Back in 1984, when Judy Raveaux first joined the staff at C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc., its mission was simple enough - to help laid off steelworkers get a new start in life.
LEADERSHIP TEAM — C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc.’s management team is, from left, Chris Mazar, chief financial officer; Rita Coyne, chief operating officer-medical services; Chief Executive Officer Judy Raveaux; and Jim Boniey, chief operating officer-community services. The community action agency has been existence since 1983. - Linda Harris
Then located in the basement of Cove Presbyterian Church, C.H.A.N.G.E.'s staff helped countless workers prepare resumes and hone their interview skills.
"It was started by a handful of ministers in a booth at Elby's," recalls Raveaux, now the organization's CEO. "Ministers would stop by with doughnuts in the morning and we'd make coffee. I remember we always had a line waiting to get in. I typed thousands of resumes, we were always busy."
But 30 years have passed since the organization opened its doors and C.H.A.N.G.E.'s mission, like its services, has evolved.
"We had to fight to be considered a full-fledged community action agency," she said. "But it opened the door" to additional program opportunities, like home weatherization, transportation and domestic violence.
C.H.A.N.G.E., now headquartered at 3136 West St., also assists individuals with health, housing, transportation, emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence, income management and child care programs.
"The need was there and we kept growing," she said. "One need led to another and another ... each year a new need surfaced and we'd go after funding to take care of those needs. You have to have a need and then you can go after the money."
Every three years she said they have to do a community-wide needs assessment to identify what the top needs are and figure if there are any barriers preventing them from serving that need, "then we have to evaluate our programs and see if we're still on track."
"We can tweak them, we can expand them, we can develop all new programs," she said. "It let's us see where the voids are and if a void has developed, we can go down state and petition for a program to address it and then write a grant."
In 2012, 30,555 individuals sought assistance or services through C.H.A.N.G.E. and the organization provided 146,795 units of service - meaning on average, C.H.A.N.G.E. helped each person who came to them in at least three ways. That's a significant jump from 2011, when 26,170 customers drew 133,365 units of service.
"We help so many people," Raveaux said. "We help your loved ones, we help your neighbors. A lot of people say we're the best kept secret around, they'll say we never realized you could do this. We laugh, but if you ask the average person, until they need our services, then it's amazing the collaboration and partnerships that come out of that" they don't understand C.H.A.N.G.E. and its services.
Originally targeting Brooke and Hancock county residents, C.H.A.N.G.E.'s service area now extends to Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties.
Likewise, its programs also have expanded.
Back in 1996, for instance, C.H.A.N.G.E. opened its free clinic, operating for 10 years before seeking federal funding. Today, C.H.A.N.G.E.'s Family Medical Care Community Health Center, designated as a federally qualified health center six years ago, now provides a full range of health care services to the community, insured or not.
"It's not a free clinic, but we see all walks of life," she said. "We see insured and we see uninsured. If they're uninsured, they'll sit down with a benefits coordinator - if they're below federal poverty level, the fee is $25 for a doctor's visit, lab work, whatever, and we write the rest of it off. Our write-offs last year alone were $3.8 million."
Being federally qualified means that whatever they get in grant money, "we have to do three times that in" write-offs, Raveaux said. "We're regulated very closely."
The health center offers a range of health care for children and adults, including women's health needs.
One of only 34 community health centers in West Virginia, Raveaux said they currently have 10 doctors on staff plus a mental health specialist who comes in twice a month. They'll also be providing dental services, and a family care pharmacy serves patients on site. A Patient Assistance Program helps those who don't have prescription coverage apply for medication through indigent drug programs offered by pharmaceutical companies, while their breast and cervical cancer screening program provides screening and diagnostic services such as clinical breast exams, pap smears and mammograms free of charge to women who qualify.
There's also the Lighthouse Domestic Violence Shelter, offering emergency housing to victims of domestic violence and their children.
"I was there one day when a call came in from one of the hospitals," she said. "We went there, it was a mother with three little ones. We left the hospital with them and put them right into the shelter. But it's amazing how many cases of domestic violence go unreported, or where the woman will go back seven or eight times until she decides she really has to get out."
Their weatherization program helps low- and moderate-income families improve the energy efficiency of their homes while ensuring their health and safety by offering attic sealing, insulation and venting; furnace modifications and retrofits; duct testing, repair and sealing, primary air sealing and blower door standards, and insulating hot water tanks, water pipes, ducts and floors.
"We had an elderly couple that was getting sicker and sicker, nobody could figure it out," she said. "One of our doctors asked the weatherization program to go into their home ... they found a cracked heat exchanger in their furnace, it was killing them. We put them up in a shelter for a week while the weatherization program replaced their furnace, insulated the house and suggested some energy-saving changes. They went back to a healthy home, we literally saved their lives."
C.H.A.N.G.E. also offers an after-school meal program and summer food services for kids age 18 and under in Brooke and Hancock counties.
"We did 23,000 meals" in 2012, she said, pointing out that you know there's a need "when you get a teacher from a (local) primary school telling you it's the best program, their kids are getting fed now."
The organization also helps first-time home buyers and helps low-income families obtain safe, affordable and energy-efficient housing. They also offer housing counseling and credit counseling classes.
"We're building houses, rehabbing houses ... we're taking people to work," Raveaux said. "We'll get notes from people who say, 'Thank you so much, we're finally living in a house that's safe for me and my family,' That's when you realize you're touching lives. A thank you will come in or you'll get a phone call or a note on Facebook, that's when you know you're doing your job."
A new innovation is the Table of Hope, which provides meals to community residents each day without regard to income and a "snack-sack" each Friday to ensure kids can munch on healthy snacks over the weekend.
While not strictly a C.H.A.N.G.E. program, it's the kind of thing Raveaux said is good for the community and for which they are a sponsor.
"We know the need is there," Raveaux said. "We pulled together, area churches, groups and citizens who provide dinner to all area residents at no cost. We're able to supply $6,000 toward the coordinator's salary ... and we send staff, volunteers to prepare the food. We want people to come share a meal, a hot meal. We talk with the people there to help them understand if there's a need out there, we want to get them off the street and get food into their bellies."
C.H.A.N.G.E. will be opening an office on Luray Drive in Wintersville on June 10.
"The (new) site will be our mirror," Raveaux said. "We'll be providing primary care, family care, OB/GYN and internal medicine there, though our mental health and dental services will remain in Weirton."
She said the Family Health Care Center will be working hand in hand with the Fourth Street Health Care Center, "because people can't always afford the copay."
And when Weirton's new, consolidated elementary school opens in 2014, C.H.A.N.G.E. will be staffing a school-based health center there.
Raveaux said the health center will mirror school hours, staying open only when school is in session and limiting itself to meeting the needs of the children attending the school.
"We're not going to be their primary caregiver," she said. "We'll just be on site and it will be managed by C.H.A.N.G.E. It will be closed when the school is closed; if a child needs to go to the ER, they'll be sent to the ER. If a child is seen and returns to their classroom, records will be sent to their primary care pediatrician.
Raveaux takes all the changes in stride.
"I think it says a lot," she said. "We've been around 30 years, we take pride in what we do," she said.
The organization is governed by a nine-member board of directors.
"We have a volunteer board, it's very unique," she said. "Because of our community health status, our board has to be one-third public, one-third private and one-third low income, and at least 51 percent of our board members must utilize the services of this agency. Our board members are patients here, and each of them has an expertise that they bring to the table that we tap into."
Even after 30 years Raveaux said there's still a lot of people who don't understand what C.H.A.N.G.E does for its community.
"Over the years we've helped thousands and thousands of people," she said. "We've helped your moms, we've helped your families and your loved ones, your friends and neighbors. Some have insurance, others don't. ... We help everybody."