Support for those in poverty isn’t as simple as just finding a person a bed or a hot meal – students who volunteer at LIFT North Philadelphia know they may be nourishing a potential career by helping to write a résumé.
“Poverty is very complicated, but we believe getting help shouldn’t have to be,” LIFT North Philadelphia Site Coordinator Lydia Gajdel said.
According to the “LIFT Constitution,” “[LIFT] is a metaphor describing the act of lifting citizens out of poverty and allowing people to then uplift themselves into a better lifestyle.”
This was the concept that Yale University sophomores Kirsten Lodal and Brian Kreiter had when they created LIFT in 1998.
As volunteers at several child service organizations, Lodal and Kreiter were unsatisfied with the lack of support for low-income parents. The two students found that campuses across the country had the same issues with providing services to these families, so Lodal and Kreiter created LIFT.
Since then, LIFT has become an international organization that serves nearly 100,000 people, known as members, in several cities including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and recently in Los Angeles.
The organization has more than 720 advocates nationwide who work approximately 67,441 volunteer hours, which is the dollar-value equivalent of $1.47 million.
“It grew from two college students’ idea into something that is much bigger with a much bigger mission,” Gajdel said.
Although LIFT’s mission is to help community members achieve economic stability in times of personal hardship, Gajdel said LIFT offers much more to community members.
“We help make goals. We write a lot of résumés and cover letters. We can help with getting public benefits and housing,” Gajdel said. “And all of that one-on-one work is done primarily by college students.”
LIFT takes advantage of college students’ abilities and skills, especially clerical and computer skills. The nonprofit organization provides services like résumé writing and job searching. Most importantly, LIFT prides itself as an organization that consolidates hundreds of resources and other organizations to make navigating through these resources easier for community members.
“When people don’t know where to turn to, they come to LIFT,” Gajdel said. “We might not necessarily have the resources to help someone with a specific issue in say, utilities, but we can connect that person with the organization that can.”
LIFT members said the experience of volunteering through the organization is mutually beneficial. While providing temporary relief for serious issues like homelessness is important to the organization, there is significant focus on bettering an individual’s circumstances in the long term.
“When we say we ‘lift’ or that we are ‘lifting,’ we are not necessarily implying that we uplift people who come in destitute and poor and disenfranchised and provide them with hope,” said Sarah Schlosbon, senior english major and LIFT director of volunteer engagement. “What it means is that we try to develop professional relationships or partnerships with members of the community, and actually, they’re constantly uplifting us.”
LIFT established an office in North Philadelphia 10 years ago. Currently, the LIFT North Philadelphia sector has six AmeriCorps members, three permanent staff members and almost 200 student volunteers who are known as advocates. Even at an international level, LIFT relies heavily upon student volunteers for support.
“College students have a lot of skills, especially in the services industry,” Gajdel said. “The fact that the advocates that we have are so computer literate is incredible. These are skills that are really undervalued.”
LIFT is unique in its nature because it is the only organization that focuses on building professional relationships with members to provide networking connections. LIFT also provides emotional support for members, which Gajdel said is one of the most important aspects of social service that is often ignored.
“LIFT is important because everyone needs someone standing beside them saying, ‘you can do this’ and that is something that LIFT really focuses on,” Gajdel said. “We have a [social services] system that is very broken. We have a system that is very convoluted.”
For senior urban studies major and LIFT Director of Communications and Campus Liason Chelsey Lowe, it has become one of the most valuable experiences in her academic career.
“My experience at LIFT has directed my career goals,” Lowe said. “It has sparked my interest in working in the nonprofit sector, particularly with low income communities. Overall, LIFT has changed my perspective on people who may be going through hard times financially. Working with people and seeing how hard they work and their determination to provide for themselves and their families is motivation for me to strive to improve the social sector.”
Lowe said that after graduating, working at LIFT will be her greatest take away from her college experience.
According to LIFT, 80 percent of members are able to find jobs and earn a cumulative six million dollars in wages.
During the 2008 recession, one LIFT North Philadelphia member Gary Farmer lost his job after 20 years of working, and was struggling to find employment. For weeks, Farmer and LIFT volunteers worked together to write Farmer’s résumé and apply for unemployment aid. Farmer was eventually able to find a job with LIFT’s help.
“The volunteers are always willing to work with you,” Farmer said in an interview with LIFT. “They take you right away, the door is always open. There is nothing that they won’t do to help you out, and they consistently go beyond the call of duty. They make my life so much better. It’s hard to find help today working on these things, but LIFT is always there for me.”
Brian Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.