Today we're talking to Kirsten Lodal, who founded--as a college sophomore--a non-profit that fights poverty in America. Twelve years later, LIFT is active in five major American cities. Since the organization's founding, more than 6,000 volunteers have helped over 40,000 people work their way out of poverty.
Huffington Post: Explain how you founded LIFT as a college sophomore. What prompted it? What are the bigger ideas behind it?
Kirsten Lodal: I founded LIFT in the fall of 1998 alongside my good friend Brian Kreiter while we were students at Yale. We had done a lot of volunteer work in various child services programs--tutoring, mentoring, etc.--and we were struck by the absence of services for the parents of the children in those programs. These were parents who were often working multiple low-wage jobs, paying their taxes, and sending their kids to school, doing all the right things that society tells us to do, yet they were still unable to afford the basics for their children. We thought that there needed to be a single center, not just in a city, but within an individual neighborhood, where families could receive any type of assistance from trained volunteers, including finding jobs, securing housing, obtaining public benefits, and making connections with other social service agencies.
Brian and I spent months consulting with several parents from those programs, seeking the advice of dozens of community leaders and social service providers in New Haven, CT, and meeting with policy experts in Washington, DC, to see if people believed that this idea could make an impact. The support for LIFT was overwhelming, and people also really responded to our model's way of bypassing the traditional shortcomings of episodic, thin volunteer service programs.
HP: What does LIFT work to do today? What is its mission and how does it execute it?
KL: At LIFT, our mission is to combat poverty and expand opportunity for all people in the United States because we firmly believe in a day when all people in our country will have the opportunity to achieve economic security and pursue their aspirations.
Our work happens in 10 LIFT centers across Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where our trained volunteers--typically college students--serve low-income individuals and families. LIFT clients and volunteers work one-on-one to find jobs, secure safe and stable housing, make ends meet through public benefits and tax credits, and obtain quality referrals for services like childcare and healthcare. Whether clients are looking for diapers to dinner on the table, we make sure that every client who walks through our doors is treated with the inherent dignity and respect that they deserve, which is so often is lacking in social service agencies.
Simultaneously, the LIFT experience pushes volunteers to grapple with our country's most challenging issues related to poverty, race, inequality, and policy. Working over the course of months and sometimes years, volunteers become champions for their clients' causes and go on to become leaders in their communities. Together, our volunteers, alumni, and supporters make up what we see as a growing movement to end poverty in America.
HP: Talk a little about the successes you've had with LIFT.
KL: LIFT has received such positive responses to our work since we first began in 1998, from high profile news coverage through outlets like The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and NBC Nightly News to recognition from the Jefferson Awards for Public Service and the Aspen Institute. But the successes that have stuck with me over the past 12 years have been the stories from our clients. Since LIFT began, over 6,000 volunteers have helped place more than 40,000 individuals and families on a path out of poverty. We have been privileged to witness countless amazing stories of clients who never thought they would hold down more than a part-time job and now have careers with salaries and benefits; clients who have been able to stay in a safe, affordable home for the first time; and I could go on and on. These families cope with so much, yet they are still able to find the time to reach out and tell our volunteers what they have accomplished with LIFT's help. Recently we received a donation from a client in Boston with a note that simply read: "Thank you for helping me to end my homelessness," and for me, that is what it is really all about.
HP: Who are your heroes? Who inspires you?
KL: My mom is my hero. She grew up in a tiny, dusty town in the middle-of-nowhere West Texas that really couldn't feel farther away from the DC metro area, which is where I was raised and now live. She moved from a really humble upbringing to being a part of the education reform vanguard. She recently retired after 45 years as a public school educator, ending her career as the principal of arguably the country's best high school. She is an activist and a barrier-buster, and she has always pushed me to take risks for my beliefs. She also, from a very early age, taught me that we're all teetering on the edge - the edge of stability, the edge of acceptance, the edge of our own resilience. And you need to do everything you can to help the people who are slipping off that edge, because someday you'll need catching too. Basically, she taught me that we're all in this together, and I as I get older, I understand her command more and more.
HP: How can people get involved with LIFT?
KL: LIFT relies on the talents, expertise, and dedication of all members of the community to serve our clients, and there are lots of opportunities to get involved. You can visit our website at www.liftcommunities.org to find out more about how to serve clients as a volunteer or connect with LIFT as a community partner.
Even if a LIFT office does not currently exist in your city, your participation in the movement is still crucial. You can expand LIFT's impact by making a tax-deductible donation at www.liftcommunities.org/donate, or you can join the dialogue about combating poverty on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
For more, visit our new Third World America section.