Ypsilanti resident Alisha Spencer got involved with the Parents as Teachers (SOS PAT) program offered by SOS Community Services because she was concerned that her son, then 3 years old, was having speech difficulties. But she received even more help than she expected.
Spencer learned how to coach her child through a stuttering problem, received help choosing and correctly using a car seat for her child, and got information about how to pick out a preschool program that would be a good fit for her son, who is now almost 5. She also benefited from networking and discussion with parents at a weekly Friday meetup at the SOS Resource Center, 114 N. River St. in Ypsi.
"The staff told me how they come out to the house and interact with your kids and give you tools to help with my son," she says. "But they also told me SOS can help if I fall behind in my bills, or if I needed food, I could come through the SOS location and they could help me with that. They also signed me up for a literacy program so I could better myself through reading."
The SOS PAT program is just one of many services offered by SOS, a social services agency celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
From bad trips to wraparound services
SOS executive director Rhonda Weathers says SOS stands for "students offering support," pointing to the origins of the nonprofit.
"SOS grew out of grassroots efforts by students and faculty at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) creating a supportive helpline for people going through, basically, a bad trip. It grew out of drug culture," she says. "They developed a crisis line and eventually were given a building, the Octagon Building we still have at 114 North River. They found that people started sleeping on the porch and knew it was a place they could get help."
Staff began opening the doors and letting people sleep inside, and the services offered by SOS began to grow from that point forward.
"They saw the need for housing services, and that's when SOS started writing the first of many HUD grants," Weathers says.
Today, Weathers says, SOS has three main "arms" of services it offers: the resource center on North River that offers a "choice" food pantry and a part-time staffer who can connect clients to other community resources; supportive housing services; and programming for children and families.
Food pantry and resource center
Tracey Anderson, SOS' food pantry and volunteer coordinator, came to SOS as an intern and spent some time as a paid resource specialist before transitioning to her current role. The satisfaction of helping others has kept her at SOS for five years.
"Being on the front lines, helping folks in my community where I live, is important to me," she says. "If I have to make a living, it's a good way to do that, for sure."
She says SOS services are needed now more than ever. Typically, SOS sees a drop-off in walk-in clients at this time of year, but that hasn't been the case in 2020.
"Usually when inclement weather hits you see less folks, because when it's cold out, it's tougher to get around with public transit or by walking," she says. "But this year we haven't seen this lull. It's partly because the weather hasn't been as inclement this year, but we can tell folks are also seeking out more food options."
She says 150-175 families make use of the pantry each week. The pantry has walk-in hours once a week, and clients can also sign up for an appointment once a month.
"With walk-ins, they can get fresh produce, canned goods, breads and dessert, and dairy as long as we have it," she says. "With an appointment, we go into the kitchen and they can get more nonperishables, meats, and personal care items."
Anderson says many people who know about SOS' food pantry don't know about other help available through the resource center from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.
"If they have questions or concerns, they can come and the staff will try to problem-solve with them around who has funds, who has the resources they need, and get that issue resolved or their question answered," she says.
SOS has also been offering supportive housing services for the last 40 years, serving homeless families with children through three units of emergency shelter for families in a "scattered site" model.
"We lease homes in the community and then place people who are homeless directly in those homes for up to 90 days, one family per house," Weathers says. "One niche we fill in our shelter system is that we can take larger families."
She says other shelter options in the area can only hold four people, but SOS often serves families of five or six people – sometimes as many as 10.
The goal, however, is to "rapidly rehouse them and build supports around them," Weathers says.
Weathers says SOS recently received word that it, along with Ann Arbor nonprofit SafeHouse Center, will receive additional funds from HUD targeted at those who have experienced domestic violence. Those funds will allow SOS to add more rapid rehousing units and specialized services for those individuals.
Children and family services
Rana Smith, SOS' children services supervisor, notes that SOS' PAT program is one of two offered in the area. The other is offered by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, which has different requirements and age ranges than SOS PAT.
The SOS PAT program serves families with children from birth to age five, with no income requirement. It also provides many wraparound services, ranging from bus tokens to accompanying families to doctor's appointments or court dates. SOS PAT families are also welcome to take advantage of other SOS services, including the food pantry.
"We work with families to teach them that they are their child's first teacher, through modeling different ways of teaching and learning," Smith says. "All our services are parent-led."
Issues that bring families to the SOS PAT program can include concerns over a child not hitting a developmental milestone, or being worried that a child preparing to go to preschool doesn't know their ABCs yet.
SOS staff do a needs assessment and can recommend additional services as needed, ranging from getting diapers to helping adults in the home improve their literacy.
Smith says she gets satisfaction from heading the SOS PAT program because of the "far-reaching, positive outcomes that affect the family network for generations."
50 stories for 50 years
As SOS prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the agency is featuring "50 Stories for 50 Years" on its website, telling the stories of people who worked for or were affected by SOS over the past five decades.
Storytelling will also be the theme of a 50th anniversary celebration from 6-10 p.m. April 18 at EMU's McKenny Hall, 878 W. Cross St. in Ypsi. The event will feature dinner, drinks, live music, and dancing. Additionally, attendees are encouraged to share a story of how SOS has made a difference through an interactive timeline.
"We're happy to be partnering with EMU because that's where we started, and we've always maintained a relationship with them," Weathers says.
More information about SOS and its services is available at soscs.org. More information and tickets for the 50th anniversary celebration are available here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.