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Children’s Initiative – Connecting to our Community; Bridges to Benefits

Program to train social service agencies on how to help at-risk families become aware of public resources available to them.


Community Contact Information:
Mount Zion Temple
Saint Paul, MN

Bridges to Benefits
Children’s Defense Fund Minnesota


  • help struggling families to access available resources
  • further the relationship-building around tzedek in our congregation. 
  • educate congregants and wider community about programs designed to stabilize families

Mount Zion congregants discovered too many local at-risk families were unaware of the resources available to them, leaving public dollars unused. Through the Children’s Initiative, congregants helped over 200 social service agencies put families in touch with resources available through the Children’s Defense Fund website, “Bridge to Benefits.” The second phase includes health care legislation advocacy.

Congregants educated themselves about the website and brought it to trusted individuals in the community. Before using this website, many organizations needed to access many different websites or stay on the phone for too many valuable minutes. This helped streamline the process in which social services agencies help families, and allowed many families to apply for much needed help.

The congregation received assistance from Jewish Community Action to design the program and encourage congregants to focus on systemic change. Instead of asking working families to confide in unfamiliar people at public gatherings, congregants were encouraged to utilize relationships with the current web of trusted individuals in our community. This web includes social services agencies, libraries, community centers, health clinics, the county court systems and communities of faith.

Project Implementation:
A year-long organizing process involving dozens of one-to-one conversations led to house parties and a “Tzedek Summit” with hundreds voting to focus on children’s issues for the congregation’s tzedek efforts. A diverse steering committee was formed for the “Children’s Initiative”, including doctors, lawyers, teachers and social workers. The steering committee planned a “Children’s Shabbat,” arranged monthly teaching sessions, and took part in the congregation’s Synaplex Shabbat.

The Director of Outreach for Children’s Defense Fund, taught about CDF’s Bridge to Benefits program, which was designed to connect working families to benefits that they are eligible for but are not utilizing. Many of the programs developed to help end poverty (child care assistance, food cost assistance, energy assistance, and the federal earned income tax credit, among others) are significantly underutilized. Only the school meal program – by far the easiest program for families to access – is used by the vast numbers of people who are eligible for it.

She showed congregants the website created by the CDF to help people learn about and apply for these programs. Congregants suggested improvements for both the website and the system, including the idea of a common application for all programs.

Congregants committed to use their relationships in the wider community to introduce community organizations to the Bridge to Benefit website. Trainings for other congregants followed. Congregants reached out to local community organizations, connected them to the CDF, and helped to organize trainings. Because of the congregation’s efforts, over 200 organizations, including the United Way, the St. Paul Council of Churches, and other local foundations hosted trainings, which introduced the website to thousands of families. Representatives from Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, and many other organizations attended trainings.

Congregants met with State Senators to ask about the role of state government in stabilizing families. The major concern was the growing number of uninsured children in the state. The board of directors is considering congregational advocacy and other activities in support of access to quality affordable healthcare for all children in the state.

Over 200 community organizations, including most of the large social services agencies and foundations now know about and are partners with the Children’s Defense Fund website.

The St. Paul Public Schools use the Bridge to Benefits website as part of their intake process when new families sign up for school and are a partner organization with Children’s Defense Fund because a congregant introduced it to school system administrators.

Many thousands of families now know that they qualify for publicly funded programs; they can download the application, they know where to send the application and if they need help in applying they have an organization within the website that can help them apply.

This program has built bridges in the faith community to work on advocacy issues. This website is only as good as the public policy behind the assistance programs.

This program received a Fain Award in 2009.