Meet Lisa Ciminelli, assistant vice president of CitySquare; a nonprofit organization in Dallas seeking to change the trajectory of people's lives by erasing poverty. At CitySquare, Ciminelli directs staff through a long laundry list of services for the homeless and working poor. When she says "we do it all at CitySquare," she means it.
It was Ciminelli's mother who encouraged her to become a volunteer, when she wanted to "get a real job and make money." Since then, she has never wavered. For nearly three decades, Ciminelli has dedicated her energy to lifting others out of hardship and she is still working to help her neighbors.
We wanted to know more about Ciminelli and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about herself, CitySquare and the communities it serves.
Dawn Tongish: Begin by telling us about CitySquare.
Lisa Ciminelli: Let me start with our mission statement at CitySquare: To fight the causes and effects of poverty through service, advocacy, and friendship. Our services include those for homeless, working poor and youth aging out of foster care. We have a large food pantry with fresh produce and the opportunity to shop on your own; a large food on the move program, which feeds 20,000 children during the summer months; a law department — Legal Action Works (LAW); a work training program — WorkPaths, which provides computer training and construction training, including soft skills and job placement; housing for our homeless and low-income neighbors, as well as our youth aging out of foster care; a large AmeriCorps presence; a community health care clinic; a policy department focusing on social justice; and a thrift store. I think a shorter list would have been what we do not do!
DT: What are your duties at CitySquare?
LC: I am the Assistant Vice President of Neighbor Support Services. I provide supervision, training and support for our Case Management staff and interns in our housing programs, who work directly with our neighbors on a daily basis.
DT: How did you become involved with CitySquare, and why are you so passionate about the work being done at the organization?
LC: I have been a Social Worker for 18 years and I have worked in the social service arena for over 26 years. I have had a lot of different experiences over the years. Prior to working at CitySquare, I worked for another nonprofit and I would bring my clients to CitySquare for food. I always thought the staff went out of their way to help and I started to feel pulled to the work that was being done here at CitySquare.
Like I said earlier, I have worked for a number of other organizations over the years, but CitySquare is different. First of all, we call the people who come to access our services neighbors, instead of clients. That was totally new to me. I could establish a good rapport with my clients in the past, but this job feels more like a relationship with a friend.
This job has been life lesson, and less like a job, if that makes sense. I have met people who will change my life forever. I am able to think outside of the box — if there were a box here at CitySquare — and see the person instead of the “problem.” We work with people here at CitySquare, not problems. It is a “job” of engaging people on a daily basis, which means getting to know them. I learn a lot from our neighbors and our staff, who work with the neighbors, every day. Everyone here is passionate about their work, whether it is providing Case Management, or work training, auditing the books, or writing our grants.
We are here to make a difference and we take it seriously, without taking ourselves too seriously. After this experience, I cannot imagine working anywhere else.
DT: Why do you work in the nonprofit sector?
LC: I have always worked in the nonprofit sector because I like to know that the work that I do on a day to day basis, makes a difference in individual people’s lives. I am able to meet people where they are. We serve anyone that walks in the door. As a teenager, I wanted to work a “real” job and make “real” money, but instead my mother encouraged me to volunteer. I volunteered two summers in a row at our Children’s county hospital, where I read to children in the burn unit and played games with children that were there for chemotherapy. I believe that experience influenced my decision to work in the nonprofit sector.
DT: It can be difficult for any nonprofit to pay the bills. How do you stay afloat?
LC: This answer comes from our vice president of programs, John Siburt. "Funding our mission is a continual challenge. We go through feast and famine but we always seem to make it because we have a great team, committed donors, and excellent outcomes. We make it by relying on a diverse variety of funding streams, by partnering where we can, and by being good stewards of the funds we receive.”
DT: How can the people of Dallas County and beyond help meet your needs for 2014? What are your biggest needs?
LC: This answer is provided by Shawn Wills our chief development officer. "Obviously funding is crucial to our work. We are in the process of building a 53,000 square foot facility (the Opportunity Center) that will be a ‘one-stop’ shop for our neighbors to receive the training, programming and services they need in order to move beyond a life of poverty. All CitySquare programs will move to this building. Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) and the Texas Workforce Commission will also relocate their offices to this new Center. Funding is still needed to complete this project. We also need funding for general program support. Our programs are either at no cost to neighbors or based on a sliding scale. In order to continue to offer these services, we need funding to help cover program expenses. Lastly, but certainly not least, we need community partners who are willing to hire our neighbors. Companies and businesses that recognize the need for our neighbors to have living-wage jobs, and are willing to provide neighbors with an opportunity."
DT: What is the most memorable moment in your experiences at CitySquare?
LC: I heard from some of my coworkers that there was a neighbor who slept on the front steps of our pantry every night. He would not come into the pantry during the day. My coworkers would make sure he was clothed and fed. His name is Charles. I met Charles one evening when I was working late. I found Charles on the front steps, huddled up against the cold weather. Initially he was leery of me, but the time we spent together made a difference in his apprehension.
Most evenings, Charles and I would sit on those steps and get to know each other. Charles had found himself homeless after losing both of his parents years ago. It was devastating for him, and his coping mechanism was drinking on a daily basis. After about a month of visiting with him, Charles told me that a “fun run” passed him one Saturday morning on those front steps. He looked up and saw people living and decided he wanted his life back. We assisted Charles in finding resources for temporary housing and drug treatment. Charles made several attempts to go to treatment, while staying in a shelter. He would come back to the steps in between attempts, and this is where I was changed. I was frustrated with his “attempts,” but one day it just stuck. I now understand the concept of second chances, and third chances.
Charles participated in 30 days of treatment and found housing in the community. I visited Charles at the treatment center, and he looked different to me. He was taller. I realized that he used to stoop and now he stood tall. He did not smile very often and now he was lit from within. I would see Charles periodically after that. I might run into him out in the community, or we’d call each other. The last time I heard from Charles, he was on his way to see his daughter for the first time in many years, and he was happy and optimistic. My friendship with Charles affects how I interact with people on a daily basis and I will not forget our time on the front steps of the pantry.
DT: What is the first thing you do when you walk into work each day?
LC: I ask God to speak through me every day. I might come with the “right” education and experience, but God has the ultimate education and experience and I don’t pretend that it is all me making that difference. God speaks through me every day.
Learn more about CitySquare here: www.citysquare.org
If you'd like to nominate a local resident for a BubbleLife community profile, contact Dawn Tongish at email@example.com or find her on Twitter at @DawnTongish.