Melissa Freigang is the founding director of the Prosperity Center of Excellence at Weber County, which works directly with the Weber-Morgan Health Department to assist in alleviating intergenerational poverty and homelessness while promoting strategies to prevent homelessness and connecting impoverished families with needed services.
In this Q&A, Freigang talks with State of Reform about the Prosperity Center of Excellence’s mission, their work with partners on future projects, and future efforts to prevent intergenerational poverty and homelessness.
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Patrick Jones: Tell me about the beginnings and the mission of the Prosperity Center of Excellence.
Melissa Freigang: “The Weber Prosperity Center of Excellence (COE) is a strategic and integrated partnership between the Weber County Commission, Weber-Morgan Health Department, and Weber Human Services. We’re pretty unique in the way we’re established. We’re a government agency department under Weber County. The COE is tasked with being a thought leader and to come up with innovative and integrated data driven upstream strategies and solutions. We focus on our most complex social challenges impacting the community, our families, and child health and well-being. Our job is to mobilize stakeholders to execute and implement strategies and solutions. So my day-to-day work is focused on building the capacity of systems, leading and organizing workflows, and coordinating agencies’ resources and services across service sectors, while making them as efficient and effective as possible. I like to call it, in a nutshell, looking at building resilience in our community, with our families and our children, for the future.
We are brand new. We started out two years ago focused on intergenerational poverty and prevention systems. In those two years, our work evolved to include homeless response, housing, criminal justice and social determinants of health, along with economic development systems. With COVID, nothing really changed. We found with the launching of the COE, that it was perfect timing for COVID. COVID actually helped us demonstrate why an agency with our mission, organized in the way we are, is critical to making sure that we are a resilient community.”
PJ: Can you tell me more about the programs and partners that you work with to assist underserved individuals in Utah?
MF: “Yes, so we’re really focused on the social determinants of health, and beyond. We [mainly] deal with our partners and all the stakeholders that are in the community. We are gap-fillers and we’re capacity builders. Our job is to share best practices and to solve these problems for our community members. It’s to build the capacity of the system, so that our service providers can plug in right away. They help our community members get access to health care coverage and get access to health care. Our entire job is to do this work differently than it’s ever been done before.
However, no one agency can do these things alone. It was a demonstration having an agency that’s able to have the social network, the social capital, and connections with other agencies to meet whatever the demand is at the time. It took all of these other agencies coming together to make sure that we were as resilient as possible when we’re dealing with a pandemic for our vulnerable populations.”
PJ: Can you tell me more about the I-CAN initiative?
MF: “I-CAN stands for the Integrated Community Action Now. Approaching solutions to intergenerational poverty is a pretty overwhelming task. So the acronym, ICAN is meaningful in saying we are taking action now. We utilize ‘resource integration coaches’ to assist parents in not only getting health coverage [for their kids], but also assisting with improving all of the indicators that the state of Utah has defined as indicators of child health and well-being. These indicators include making sure that children and their parents have medical coverage. But, in addition to that, it’s looking at how they are managing their mental and physical health and well-being. Did they have access to other components of that? Do they have the social capital to get services and to help their children become healthier and maintain their health?”
PJ: Do you think the state of Utah’s programs and services are effective in helping the underserved?
MF: “The task is pretty overwhelming, and the demand is really high. My experience, whether you’re talking about the Department of Human Services, the Department of Workforce Services, the Department of Health, and all of the executive branches, is that they are doing pretty phenomenal work. I think a lot of people don’t understand how much work is happening behind the scenes. The Department of Human Services and Department of Health are merging to become more effective, more efficient, and it is a big undertaking.
Is it ever enough though? No, and not just in serving those who are experiencing homelessness but in preventing homelessness in the first place. We have 10% of our children experiencing intergenerational poverty right now. That’s about 7,200 children. We have another 23% in poverty at risk of remaining poverty. That’s the size of the problem that we’re dealing with, but again, I’m always impressed and heartened by the amount of work, subject matter expertise, and the willingness to look at things differently so that we can move the needle and try to push forward.”
PJ: What is on the horizon for the COE? What makes you excited?
MF: “We’re working not only with legislators and policymaker leaders, but we’re also creating that vertical integration all the way to the frontlines. We are working with our executive agencies to not only build their capacity, but also get information to them on how we can do this work most effectively.
We’ve [also] been working with the Department of Human Services, and our Weber Human Services, to create a prevention system coordinator [position] to really merge all the provision that we’re doing and to look at prevention, not only around substance abuse and suicide prevention, but also at homelessness prevention and the prevention of children remaining in poverty. I think I’m most heartened by the political will and the readiness of our community and our agencies to do this work. I’m excited that we’re able to do this innovative work and really impact meaningful change.”
This interview was edited for clarity and length.