For Kimberly Brink of Sorento, earning her degree in nursing is a "dream come true," made possible through a training program aimed at helping laid off or low-income residents in Madison and Bond counties. But the program's director says continual funding cuts are keeping some residents from receiving needed help.
Brink, a mother of five, said she knew becoming a registered nurse would help support her family but that the cost of school kept her from doing so. To attend classes, Brink would need to work on part-time as a nurse's assistant.
After more than two years of classes and financial aid from a program administered by the Madison County Employment and Training Department, Brink graduated on Friday from Kaskaskia College.
"I feel like I am in a dream," Brink said. "I'm excited to be able to move on with my life and help my family."
However, funds for the program that helped Brink have been drastically cut in the past three years, according to department Executive Director David Stoecklin, causing less people to receive help. The program is dependent upon federal funds from the Workforce Investment Act.
"Reduced funding will mean reduced services," Stoecklin said. "What it truly means is we will enroll less and less folks in training programs."
Funding from the federal stimulus package boosted the department's budget to about $6 million in 2010; now Stoecklin said he believes they will be lucky to see $2 million this year. The funding is determined by a formula based on economic variables, such as unemployment and poverty rates in those counties.
By comparison, a neighboring program in St. Clair, Monroe, Washington, Randolph and Clinton counties has seen an increase in funding. The St. Clair County administered program will receive $3.3 million in federal funds this year, compared with $2.48 million in 2012, according to St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department Director Debra Moore. The department administers the program.
The Madison County program has met or exceeded federal benchmarks and participants typically find jobs earning between $31,000 and $40,000 annually, according to reports filed with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Residents are helped through training, job placement, resume preparation and youth services for at-risk students or those seeking a high school diploma.
The drop in funding in Madison and Bond counties has caused the closure of two of the department's four field offices and the lowest number of staff ever.
"A death by a thousand cuts is no less painful," Stoecklin said.
Offices in Glen Carbon and Granite City have been shuttered. The department still operates offices in Alton and Greenville.
"Programs like this give the opportunity to people to go out and get skills necessary," Stoecklin said. "It's common sense. You want a new job, you are going to need new skills. That's why this is so important."
More than 100 people are already waiting to receive help, a result of the area's 8.5 percent unemployment rate, according to Stoecklin.
"The problem is we have a greater need and funds continue to drop," Stoecklin said. "As staff gets smaller and smaller we are able to do less and less. Not that we don't want to do more."
The program has seen a 62 percent drop in those participating in job training or youth programs since 2010. That year, 977 people received such help from the program. Last year it was 370 people.
The cause of the decline stems from less availability from staff and less funding, according to Stoecklin. The funding cut disproportionately hurts new applicants to the program because those previously enrolled are still completing their training, which typically means earning a degree in two or three years at public colleges or universities.
"Stimulus money was a two-sided sword," Stoecklin said. "It was great when the extra money was there, but when it went away the clients didn't. Customers in school then are still in school. That's why new enrollment numbers are down."
Kathy Wilson, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club in Bethalto, said she worked at the Club as a secretary through the county's workforce program while she completed her college degree. The Club employs participants from the Madison County program.
Wilson said the experience and financial aid of the program was instrumental in focusing her career path and the careers of current participants.
"I think it's critical because most kids don't have any idea what they want to do leaving high school," Wilson said. "A rare few know what they want to be. This gives them the opportunity to work somewhere and get real-life experience, possibly hitting on something they really enjoy."
Stoecklin said the department has been appealing to state and federal elected officials for more help. The problem is in showing how helping someone gain employment benefits the community as a whole and reduces government costs, he said.
"How do you track that without having individual income tax returns to look at?" Stoecklin said. "How do we substantiate how many people we helped get off food stamps, subsidized housing, Medicaid?"
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2501.