In 2010, thousands in the Cincinnati community came together to launch the CityLink Center — a bold $12 million investment in breaking down the barriers for the working poor to advance their lives through holistic care. Since their doors opened in 2012, more than 4,000 individuals have been impacted through the center, and outcomes show that the center’s holistic approach is effective in advancing people out of poverty as CityLink clients increased their annual income by an average of $9,226.

Though their mission has remained steadfast over the last decade, 2020 was a turning point in so many ways. According to Johnmark Oudersluys, the center’s executive director, CityLink has recently been feeling the call to expand their capacity. When the pandemic hit, the organization had to decide whether to look internally for self-preservation or run toward the needs of the community. The choice was easy, knowing the neighbors and community faced unprecedented health, economic and social challenges.

CityLink is on a mission to expand their campus to increase the breadth and depth of services they can offer. New construction and rehabilitation of existing buildings will bring to life an additional 23,834 square feet for life-changing support on the CityLink campus.

“We are fortunate to have incredible partners, supporters and volunteers who have helped us meet this moment with hope,” says Oudersluys. “We believe in the inherent worth of all our neighbors and appreciate that 2020 has had a catastrophic effect on many of them. Individuals who were struggling to get by were overwhelmed by the challenges of the year.”

The past year further highlighted that the individuals CityLink serve are getting by with very little margin and working hard to do so. That’s difficult in normal circumstances. In the midst of a pandemic and other challenges, they are often the first to be let go. On top of that, single parents are struggling to support children’s education remotely while trying to work. All of this has presented acute challenges for the impoverished in the community.

When responding to needs and determining next steps, CityLink seeks insights from their client advisory council, who speak from personal experience of their journey. When the coronavirus hit, CityLink additionally sent out text messages and called clients to ask what they needed and how CityLink could support them. Having those open lines of communication helped them develop short-term and long-term goals.

The CityLink collaborative has traditionally been focused on equipping their clients with skills to improve their lives and the lives of their families. This year, additionally, the organization and its volunteers provided support by helping supply food, gas, and connection to other community resources.

“We saw that there were people who had been working hard to rebuild their lives and just had their lives completely disrupted by COVID-19,” says Oudersluys.

The organization knew that for the community to really rebuild, they would need additional capacity and pathways for people. In response, they are focusing on five core initiatives in the campus expansion. ChangingGears, CityLink’s transportation partner, is launching an automotive technician training program in January, providing a new pathway for people to earn a good living wage. ChangingGears has traditionally serviced, sold, and leased reliable vehicles at an affordable price to CityLink clients. Through the campus expansion, they will be able to move into a larger facility, enabling them to serve more vehicles and scale the automotive technician training program.

CityLink is also expanding their Cornerstone Construction Training program, as the construction industry is expected to have a strong continued future.

“We want to be in a position to have our program be that pipeline of talent for that industry,” says Oudersluys.

The construction training combines industry-leading and local partners and volunteers:

● The Allied Construction Industries (ACI) accredits the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) construction training.

● Cincinnati Public Schools’ Aspire program teaches math and communication skills.

● SmartMoney offers instruction on preparing for adjusting wages.

● Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health prepares clients for resiliency and navigating new industry norms.

● ChangingGears equips clients with private transportation through the Bridge Program.

● Turner Construction professionals teach the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) 10-hour safety course.

● CityLink manages client engagement, partner alignment, volunteer engagement and employer engagement.

Additionally, a new constructed childcare center will double the capacity of the Learning Grove. This expansion will allow for extended ages, hours, as well as support more temporary care for children of CityLink clients.

“Without reliable childcare, parents’ lives are completely disrupted,” says Oudersluys.

While many individuals come in search of training to prepare for long-term careers, others need immediate employment. To help rapidly connect clients to meaningful entry-level employment, CityLink is partnering with Roots Staffing, a local, purpose-driven temporary-to-permanent agency. This new partnership will be critical as businesses and employees seek to restart their work.

Lastly, the other new partnership CityLink has launched is PelotonU, a partner out of Austin, Texas, that is helping individuals with college completion. This is key because living wage jobs require advanced education. An innovative educational intermediary, PelotonU, offers a path for students to earn their associate and bachelor’s degrees from accredited, competency-based, online education providers without having to accrue gargantuan debt.

To help this project come to life, key members of the funding and development community are teaming up. The Cincinnati Development Fund invested new market tax credits, Fifth-Third is purchasing those tax credits, and Model Group is the developer and general contractor who is leading the development. North Shore Design is the architect designing the site and facilities.

“We are raising a total of $5.3 million for this project, of which 70% is committed,” says Oudersluys. The current contributors to the campus expansion include Crossroads Church, Farmer Family Foundation, Connor Group Kids & Community Foundation, PLK Communities, P&G Foundation, and Haile Foundation. Many individuals and families are investing in the project as a way to tangibly help our community rebuild, to learn more you can go to reimagine citylinkcenter.org

Typically, more than 200 volunteers serve 10,000 hours a year, bringing capacity and compassion to the mission. Volunteers welcome people, provide tutoring, and teach classes on financial education, resume review and mock interviews.

“We have volunteers in a tremendous breadth of roles that add capacity and compassion to our work,” says Oudersluys. “They do it because they want to plug in and make a difference in the community.”

The COVID-19 crisis caused CityLink to temporarily suspend on-site volunteers and transition to delivering remote services in financial counseling, goal sessions and IT training. Though it was a large undertaking, the reality is that the pandemic pulled the future forward in many ways. Not only have they gotten comfortable offering remote services but they are also deploying technology to enable them to offer hybrid classes in the future. This will enable people to either join in person or remotely for certain offerings.

“It’s really challenged us to think how we fulfill our mission in new and different ways,” says Oudersluys, who admits that the year has also instilled simple but important life lessons.

“I’ve learned to hold tight to the mission but surrender control of the tactical execution,” he says. “I was trying to control a lot of things in an environment that was changing rapidly externally. We had to become a lot more flexible and adaptive so that we could pilot things quickly.”

They have accelerated prototyping inside the organization, asking “How do we try something quickly and inexpensively to see if it works and then scale from there?”

“This has been a time of learning and for me, personally, growing in faith to surrender and trust that God will continue to lead and guide our organization,” says Oudersluys.

Moving into 2021, CityLink plans to pilot the automotive technician training, scale up the construction training, relaunch the culinary training and grow existing partnerships. Many other incredible organizations continue as a part of the collaborative at CityLink like Per Scholas (IT training & career placement), Center for Employment Opportunities (transitional employment for returning citizens), SmartMoney Financial Education (personal budgeting and finance), Findlay Culinary Training, the Cincinnati Health Department, and more.

“We are focused on how we can help our community rebuild and get back on its feet,” says Oudersluys. “These are things that we are really excited about as we look to the year ahead.”

Generous donors who are passionate about building a better community make all the difference. If you are interested in donating, visit www.citylinkcenter.org.

CityLink Center is located at 800 Bank St., Cincinnati, OH 45214. For more information, call 513.357.2000.