Those in Need Must Lead
A group of mothers on welfare and state welfare caseworkers founded the Parents' Action Council (PAC) in 1969. PAC would eventually become UCAN. The original founding caseworkers were very sensitive to the importance of having PAC's low-income members determine what they needed and how best to address their needs. Only those who had welfare cards were allowed to decide what PAC would do. This was a time in which those living in poverty faced immense stigma within their community. For example, welfare rolls were posted for the public to see. UCAN's founders wanted to advocate for better treatment of people living in poverty. Soon after coming together, the so called "welfare moms," many of whom had little self-esteem, education or experience in speaking out in public, succeeded in getting a local pharmacy to stop limiting the hours in which those on welfare could pick up prescriptions. They also got the local school district to stop claiming that none of its students qualified for free/reduced cost lunches-children had been going hungry because the district did not want to admit it had kids living in poverty.
To Empower Themselves
These same founders had a profound desire to improve their own lives and the lives of others in similar situations. One of the moms, who had completed college and was working for the local employment office, learned about a program in Medford designed to help build the skills of women living in poverty. After seeing the program in action, she shared the concept with others at PAC, and the Douglas County Confidence Clinic was born. Starting in 1971, the women came to the Clinic to learn how to navigate the middle class culture, work on getting their GEDs, and learn to drive, perform home repairs and sew their own clothes. They also met regularly in support groups, forming strong bonds that helped them escape isolation.
To Empower Others
Within a short time after its founding, those who were the initial founders of the Confidence Clinic began to focus on helping others. Many of PAC's earliest participants became the Clinic's first employees and volunteers. In 1972, realizing that many could not attend the Clinic's programs because they lacked child care, PAC opened a child care center called "Sunshine House." As time went on, PAC tried to address other challenges, including legal issues, men's issues and the need for food. Not every program worked, but PAC never backed down from trying to address pressing needs.
A Huge Leap Forward
With the Clinic and Sunshine House up and running, PAC moved forward in 1973 to take over operations of Douglas County's Head Start program. This was a giant undertaking, as PAC staff needed to become familiar with the federal grant process and federal programming standards. PAC was successful at obtaining grant funds and establishing a new Head Start program, greatly increasing its budget as well as its number of employees and volunteers. PAC's philosophy worked particularly well in supporting a Head Start Program. Head Start requires the use of a Policy Council comprised of low-income parents to help guide programming and operations. Many Head Start programs at the time had such Councils, but these Councils were often not really empowered to guide their programs. PAC's philosophy of ensuring that low-income individuals drive programming decisions ensured that the PAC Head Start Policy Council truly guided the Head Start Program.
Onward to Community Action
During the first decade in which PAC operated, Douglas County lacked a Community Action Agency (CAA). CAAs were established under President Johnson's administration to operate a host of programs addressing poverty. Following its successful re-launch of the Douglas County Head Start Program, PAC took on a contract to operate another program typically operated by CAAs-the Low Income Energy Assistance Program. With growing expertise in operating federal programs, PAC was ready to become a CAA. In 1981, PAC became Douglas County's designated CAA, and soon after changed its name to Umpqua Community Action Network, or UCAN, as it was commonly known. As a CAA, the new organization was required to diversify its board, but it continued to have 1/3 low-income representation on the board.
More Growth and Success
With a budget increasing into the millions of dollars, Umpqua Community Action Network undertook other services typical of CAAs. These services ranged from operating the local food bank to developing affordable housing. At times, the agency spun off programs that staff had successfully began: a program combating domestic violence became Battered Person's Advocacy; a program focused on community development became the local Community Development Corporation now known as NeighborWorks Umpqua. It also helped to start a Community Health Center originally called the Open Door Clinic, which became the Umpqua Community Health Clinic.
In the mid-2000s, UCAN began work to provide CAA programming in adjacent Josephine County. Over the next few years, the agency expanded into its neighboring county. In recognition of the ties binding all of its CAA programming, Umpqua Community Action Network became United Community Action Network. UCAN has continued its growth, taking over operations of the Douglas County public transit system when it was at risk of ceasing service. UCAN has also added a number of National Service Programs in both counties, supporting many partner agencies with volunteers.
Today - A Reflection of the Past
UCAN is now one of the largest employers in the region. UCAN is also one of the region's most comprehensive providers of human services. The agency budget has neared 20 million dollars and it employs nearly 200 people. But much work needs to be done. While UCAN has grown, local economies have faltered. As UCAN moves forward to address local community challenges, we do so following the spirit of our founders. We take risks. We innovate. We collaborate. And most importantly, we look to our low-income community to best understand our communities' needs and to develop solutions to meet those needs and to inform us on how we can best provide services.