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Driven to succeed for her family

Debby Love received tuition assistance through Community Action Duluth and turned it into a career driving semi trailer truck for Cenex Harvest States of Rosemont, Minn. After scraping by throughout her life, the Superior native used the assistance from Community Action Duluth to catapult her career. She now provides for her four daughters with a career that includes the highest income of her lifetime and full benefits. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
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There were days living in a small two-bedroom apartment in Two Harbors with her four daughters that Debby Love won't forget — but she is glad to relegate them to memory.

It was 2009 and the height of the recession. Love had spent the previous 15 years working a series of jobs as a cook and home-health aide that hovered around minimum wage.

"For a long time I could survive like that," said the 40-year-old Love.

But the recession pushed Love and her family to the brink of homelessness. She couldn't catch up. She kept seeing ads for semi-truck drivers and leapt at the opportunity with the help of tuition assistance through Community Action Duluth.

It's part of the story Love will tell tonight in her address at Community Action Duluth's Dream Big fundraiser and 50th anniversary celebration. The Greysolon Ballroom will be filled with 260 guests — potential donors who will be treated to the nonprofit organization's first Return on Investment Report.

The report examined seven assistance programs, looking mostly at the year 2013, and was done with consultation from GrayHall and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, both of St. Paul. The report shows a rate of return of between $2 and $33 for every dollar invested.

"It's really good information for nonprofits and the entities that invest in them," said Community Action Duluth director Angie Miller, who ordered the study to coincide with the anniversary. "It's good for them to see there's a huge return on their investment. We've been saying this for a long time but didn't have the data or true research behind them to show the powerful impact of these programs."

Community Action began as a national program in 1964 as a linchpin in President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty." Duluth started its organization in 1965 as a function of the city government. Long a separate nonprofit, Community Action Duluth operates from an office in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on an annual budget of about $2 million, getting slightly more than half its funding from state and federal grants and slightly less than half from private donations.

Last year, the organization served more than 3,000 people — the lion's share in the agency's annual tax site. More than 60 percent of the clients in its ongoing programs are women, mostly single women with children.

The mission of Community Action Duluth, explained Miller and the study's author, Rachel Forsyth, is to end generational poverty. With financial returns up to several times their programs' initial investments, the study shows Community Action Duluth's approach seems to be working toward that end.

"This study lends credibility to the things we believe in," said Forsyth, whose numbers showed, for example, that the employment coaching program returned $6 for every dollar spent in 2013, as 85 people became employed with the assistance of Community Action Duluth.

Other programs examined included GED tutoring, MNsure registration and a JumpStart car loan program that offers innovative loans to people in pursuit of reliable transportation.

Additionally, the study looked at the Duluth Transit Authority's 2011 addition of third-shift routes. The routes began in conjunction with Community Action Duluth's advocacy and included a rate hike in exchange for extended hours on six of its major bus lines. The DTA agreed to extend service on the lines from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. to allow people to get to overnight shifts, mostly at the downtown hospitals. The study found that the extended service time resulted in 35 riders obtaining employment.

The program continues to yield positive results to this day, said DTA director of planning and administration Jim Heilig.

"It's the first fare increase since I've been around where we did not lose ridership," Heilig said. "Usually with a rate hike you gain revenue and lose ridership. But we gained ridership and revenue at the same time — and people were coming off underemployment rolls. It's been a good thing for everybody."

A dream come true

Love's daughters now range in age from 10 to 24. Instead of a tiny apartment in Two Harbors, the family lives in the three-bedroom Superior home in which Love grew up.

With two kittens, two Chihuahuas and two girls still living at home, Love is content like no other time in her life. She's on the road 60 hours a week, delivering fuel oil and other tank products to places throughout the Midwest and occasionally to other parts of the country.

Her daughters still struggle to spread out into their rooms. They crawl into bed with Love, who will also find them sleeping on the couch — actions that are remnants of their living in tight quarters for so many years.

She recalled a time when the girls fought over a dwindling bottle of hair conditioner. And socks? There were never enough socks.

"I always thought they started the trend of wearing mismatched socks," Love said.

When Love sought tuition assistance from Community Action Duluth, she was armed with a plan.

"She was fiercely determined and her own advocate for what she wanted for her family," said Amanda Peterson, Love's Community Action Duluth employment coach.

The nonprofit bet on Love and paid her roughly $2,000 tuition into Lake Superior College's seven-week Over the Road Truck Driving Program. Unemployed at the time and making $170 per week in unemployment insurance, Love bundled up in harsh weather and drove an old Yamaha motorcycle to classes.

"I'd been lugging it around forever," she said, and she resorted to it to save money on gas.

Upon finishing the program, she immediately dovetailed into work. Until she started driving truck, she'd never met a truck driver.

She continued to approach her life with ferocity — getting her passport to Canada, her credentials to truck into the port docks and her clearance to haul hazardous materials.

Her versatility made her valuable and she's now on with her third trucking company, having climbed into a seat with Cenex Harvest States. She earns $60,000 per year with full benefits, including a pension.

She's replaced her Yamaha with a brand-new strawberry red Chevy pickup. More importantly, she's set a valuable example for her daughters, who used to question their mom's hard work, lament her hours away from home and tell her, "It's not getting you anywhere."

"Their whole worldview has changed," Love said.

Community Action Duluth's Miller said she hopes the nonprofit's report will change minds, too — about what it means to provide assistance to people in need.

"There are so many people we work with and they are completely motivated and driven to make a better life for themselves and their kids," Miller said. "The stereotypes about people in poverty, in particular generational poverty, are completely shattered here every day."

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