Connecting Community

Connecting Community

UCM director Cheri Zeman leaves legacy of cooperation.

While children living in Janna Lee Apartments are waiting for the school bus, there is someone there to keep an eye on them. It’s not a police officer, or a school system employee, or a worker with Family Services. It’s a mother. “It wasn’t the county coming and doing some kind of program and watching the kids,” said Ken Disselkoen, the acting director for the county’s Department of Systems Management for Human Services. “The mothers in that community are doing that themselves, because of the kind of development work that UCM and their staff are now doing.”

UCM’s focus on community development began two years ago at the urging of Cheri Zeman, who initiated the new programming a few months after she was promoted from deputy director to executive director. This month, she left UCM after five years to become the executive director of SERVE Inc., a non-profit close to her new home in Manassass.

“She really had a lot of energy for coming up with new ideas, and one of the biggest was community development,” said Elizabeth McNally, UCM’s deputy director of program operations. UCM has started community development projects at Hybla Valley Elementary and Janna Lee apartments. Instead of distributing resources from the top-down, community development workers act as facilitators who help neighbors find resources within their own community.

“We’re not going in and setting up programs,” Zeman said. “We’re going in and teaching the residents how to advocate for themselves and how to build their own programs. So if we pull out, the programs will continue.”

“You see all the walls break down once communities start coming together,” Zeman added. “That’s when the magic happens.”

“Community Development is very different from casework because you’re really working with the community to help it discovers it own strengths, its own resources, to solve a problem for the inside out,” explained Disselkoen. His agency has contracted with UCM on several community development projects.

“It was very bold on her part, very creative, to partner with the county to do more community development,” Disselkoen added. “It was bold in the fact that this was a new line of business for UCM and they really had to develop and create the competency within their own staff.”

He also praised Zeman for creating a “true partnership” with Human Services. “One of the real accomplishments for Cheri was that she took the relationship with the county beyond just contractual.”

“She’s very good about thinking about different partnerships and putting the pieces of the puzzle together to better serve the community,” McNally said.

WHEN ASKED about her work at UCM, Zeman talked about the partnerships she’d built, and stressed the youth programs that have been established at Hybla Valley and Janna Lee. “The thing that resonates strongest to me, in my mind, would be the youth programs. They grew exponentially in the last few years.”

“It is the one program that I think UCM is running now that has more partnerships associated with it than any other. That is truly the way that non-profits must run in the future. We cannot operate in silos,” she added. According to Disselkoen, these youth programs brought together UCM, the school system, the police and the departments of Family Services, Systems for Human Services and Community and Recreation.

Zeman, a single mother, said she hadn’t planned on a job change when she moved this summer from Mount Vernon to Prince William County, where she could afford a house with more space for her four children. “I was dutifully going to make the commute to UCM for what I thought would be the next 10 years or more.”

But she said that when the job at SERVE opened, it made sense to apply. The office is only five miles from her house. “My quality of life is certainly enhanced by once again being able to work in the community that I live in.”

SERVE is similar to UCM in that it offers emergency assistance, job help and a food warehouse. But it also has a 60-bed homeless shelter. “There’s never a night when the beds aren’t completely full,” Zeman said.

“What I’m really looking forward to is the opportunity to be part of the leadership in Prince William county and part of the future of how human services and non-profits are thought about,” she said, explaining that Prince William County is reacting to many of the same trends that were shaping Fairfax County a decade ago.

She added that her philosophy towards human services has been affected by Disselkoen’s message that, “we have to share information. We have to share resources and we have to share power. And that truly is one thing that I felt was an important part of how we conducted business at UCM.”

Zeman said she wants to help the leaders of the Prince William County see that a commitment to human services will benefit everyone in the community. “[SERVE’s clients] are people that live in our community, they’re not bused in for our services.”

ZEMAN ASSURED Mount Vernon residents that UCM will not stumble after her departure. “I want the community to know that there’s an awful lot of leadership left behind. They’ll be fine.”

UCM’s Interim director is Anthony Hill, who was program director at UCM for one and a half years before he left to finish his Ph.D. in social work at Howard University. He is now an assistant professor at Catholic University of America. He said he expects to stay at UCM for about six months, until the search process is complete.

Hill said he will work in close collaboration with UCM’s board of directors and will focus on maintaining the organization’s community partnerships and stabilizing UCM’s staff situation, so there will be a strong and responsive infrastructure for the next director.