The Importance of Connection


The Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income or PROMISE, program is an interagency collaboration of the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Social Security Administration. The program strives to improve the education and career outcomes of low-income children with disabilities receiving Supplemental Security Income and their families. Under the PROMISE program, state agencies have partnered to develop and implement six model demonstration projects (MDPs) serving 11 states.

Arkansas PROMISE program’s three primary components are intensive case management provided by a case manager, known as a “connector,” hired from the community; at least two paid summer work experiences of up to 200 hours each; and additional education provided during required monthly meetings and through a week-long, statewide summer camp.

The first component gets perhaps the least attention and is regarded as the least sustainable. Connectors support the household’s needs and engagement with PROMISE services and existing resources.

While the realities of agency budgets make small caseloads difficult, data from the PROMISE projects where small caseloads were a component may encourage us to rethink priorities and invest in a strategy that has proven its value.

We invited Arkansas youth and parents to share stories of the impact PROMISE has had on their lives and communities. Their testimonies emphasized the importance of the relationships the connector has been able to build and the lasting impact that they have had on the families they engaged.

Phillips County, located in the Delta region of Arkansas, is a prime example. The median household income in Phillips County is $26,829 and the poverty rate is 33.5%. African Americans make up 62 percent of the population and 91 percent of those individuals live in poverty.

In September, Denise Olloway, the Phillips County connector, began the final monthly meeting for her caseload participants by sharing some statistics as part of a ceremony to recognize the participants’ accomplishments. She started with a caseload of 23 youth and their families three and half years ago. Of those, four moved out of state and three did not engage with the services. Of the 16 youth remaining, 10 have graduated from high school and two are seniors scheduled to graduate in 2019. Five youth are employed full-time, and two are attending college. One of those attending college is also working part-time.

Denise had asked three youth and three parents to say something about how PROMISE had impacted them, but almost every youth and parent at the ceremony chose to speak.

The youth used the words, “PROMISE changed my life.” They spoke about how they had learned to earn money, use money wisely and save. They talked about how they had learned about communication and work skills. One young man talked about how he had been living on the streets and stealing to survive before PROMISE, and now he was earning and bringing in money.

Parents talked about how PROMISE had “opened doors for our kids.”

“It’s not just about the money. It’s about all the things the kids have learned. When they said we had to come to these meetings, I thought, ‘I’m not going to meetings,’ but I came to the first one, and I’ve been to all of them since then,” said one father who attends required monthly meetings.

As each youth and parent spoke, it was clear that “Ms. Denise” was the stimulus that brought people into the program, got them engaged, encouraged them, goaded them to keep them motivated, and kept them involved in working toward their education and employment goals.

One mother talked about how Denise had “come into our home, not with anger or disrespect, but with the same [positive] attitude every time.”

It was clear that the youth and families felt loved and supported by Denise, and that they loved and supported her in return. Every single person present said to her, “We love you” or “I love you.”

I attended the meeting in Phillips County to give a presentation about the Arkansas no-cost extension, which services would continue, and to reassure participants that they were not being left alone.  However, that presentation proved to be superfluous.

Denise had done her job well. She had connected the families on her caseload with local and statewide resources that could provide assistance and showed them how to access those services. She had helped the youth and parents identify goals and the steps needed to accomplish those goals. She believed they could achieve their goals, and they believed in themselves.

The participants in Phillips County did not need PROMISE any more. They did not need a connector. They will always want Denise in their lives as an encourager, mentor and friend, but they did not need her as a service provider. She provided them with the knowledge, skills, and connections to continue achieving their goals and setting new ones.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

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