For Latoya Harris, community matters. That’s one of the driving forces behind her new nonprofit, Cornerstone Community Center in Bridgeville, which aims to connect people with the resources they need. The need for assistance is more widespread in the area than people may realize, she says.
There are a few communities in western Sussex that are in obvious poverty, but often, Harris said, there are pockets of poverty that are harder to see, including in Bridgeville and its outskirts. Her job as a counselor gives her a window into that world — people who may live in a house that looks fine from the outside, but still have trouble buying food and clothes or getting the medical care they need, even with help from food stamps or Medicaid.
"There's a huge need in western Sussex and Bridgeville," said Valencia Hayes, the nonprofit's treasurer, and right now there's no one-stop shop that does what Cornerstone is doing.
Hayes said she started volunteering with the group because she was impressed to see a young person like Harris engaged in the community, seeing a need and having a vision to do more. "Sometimes what draws you is the personality of the person," Hayes said, noting that even before Harris had the nonprofit, she tutored area children at her own expense.
Poverty in the area
The U.S. Census Bureau gives a rough estimate of a 12.1 percent poverty rate in Sussex County. That may seem low, but with an estimated population of over 230,000 in the county, it’s a lot of people. In addition, people who don't technically count as being in poverty may still struggle to make ends meet.
According to an analysis in April 2021 by the University of Delaware’s Center for Community Research and Service, poverty in rural areas like those in Sussex County is not as concentrated as it is in cities like Wilmington, but it’s more widespread. The center broke down census numbers and found eyebrow-raising results in many parts of western Sussex County, where as much as 31 percent to 50 percent of the population lives in poverty. The child poverty numbers are correspondingly high in the area – from 21 percent to 50 percent in a number of western Sussex zip codes.
The analysis also noted that it’s still too soon to know the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I do think it’s more common than people let on,” Harris said. She noted older people in the area have also really struggled during the pandemic. For example, they may fear going out in public and getting what they need, or lack transportation, and can end up rationing medications.
Making a difference
Harris, a Bridgeville resident, started Cornerstone Community Center in March 2021, so it’s only been in operation a few months. She said she saw there was a huge gap in the area when it came to getting help to people who needed it and she wanted to bridge that.
She already has a job as a counselor and is working on getting her doctorate in psychology, so it’s not like she just has too much free time. She also didn’t have funding or grants, but she went ahead and started anyway.
"She started basically taking the money out of her own family's purse," Hayes said. Since then, Harris has been able to find some grants and donors.
Harris downplayed her efforts, saying she's not seeking attention.
“It’s a labor of love,” she said on why she spends so much time on the nonprofit. “... It’s really my heart and my passion is to serve.”
Life isn’t as community oriented as it used to be, as she sees it. She’s trying to rebuild some of that community in addition to helping people out with basic needs.
The nonprofit's Facebook page follows that theme, plugging all kinds of opportunities, from local job listings to giveaways, community events and resources available from other nonprofits.
Cornerstone aims to help people with overall health, including mental health, which is important to Harris as a professional counselor. The organization also tries to connect parents with educational resources, build financial literacy and help those who are homeless.
It’s a small operation so far, mostly Harris and several volunteers, she said. Some of their outreach has included holding a mental health event (another is in the works), providing food boxes for older people in Bridgeville, and giving away school supplies, masks, hand sanitizer and more.
Other organizations were addressing food insecurity in the area, Hayes said, but with COVID they have been stretched thin.
Harris' children take part too. One daughter, Bryana, wanted to focus on the homeless, Hayes said, so she has gotten involved through Bryana's Donation House, which is part of the nonprofit.
One donor contributed winter coats. Coat giveaways tend to be for kids, Harris said, which is great, but the homeless need them too, along with hats, gloves and socks. She’s working on putting together an upcoming event to give out these items.
Cornerstone is also planning to work to connect parents with special education resources for their children.
Resources exist for people, but there’s a real lack of knowledge about what’s available, Harris said. A lot of people in our community, she said, are sometimes afraid to ask for help, or may be too proud to ask.
People in the area have been helpful with the work, Harris said, and she has seen community connections strengthen. “There are a lot of people who care about the community; a lot of them just don’t know how to get involved.”
Cornerstone does not yet have a building, but one is available and they are looking for money like grants to convert it to meet their needs, Hayes said.
As far as how the nonprofit will grow, Harris isn't sure yet, saying they'll go as far as God takes them. "I just want to be a beacon of hope for people."
How to help:
Harris said donations are appreciated, whether that’s money or supplies. They could also use more volunteers.
One need is for tutors or mentors for area children, Hayes said.
Find out more about Cornerstone Community Center at cornerstone-bridgeville.com.