ONTARIO — As with most grassroots movements, Ontario’s Poverty to Prosperity strategy started with local businesses, dedicated residents and a dream of changing the economic climate of the area.

It is no secret to locals that poverty and unemployment have been challenges in the recent history of Malheur County. Two years ago, two Ontario residents decided to take on the issue.

“It started with a couple of our local business people, Riley Hill and Dirk DeBoer,” said Ken Hart, vice president of operations at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario. “They were talking about the opportunities for youth in our community and wanting to make a positive difference.”

Hill and DeBoer approached area school districts, Treasure Valley Community College, community members and local businesses with a discussion on how they could work together to improve the economic conditions of Ontario and the surrounding areas.

“That was the seed that started it all,” Hart said. “They reached out to different individuals in the community to get the wheel of prosperity started.”

Malheur County had a poverty rate of 22 percent in 2013, according to the Oregon Employment Department. That same year, Oregon’s poverty rate was 14.8 percent and the national poverty rate was 15 percent.

Oregon Employment Department data also shows the average job in Malheur County paid $31,145 in 2012, 70 percent of the statewide average. The average Malheur County pay rose 3 percent in 2013.

As they studied the area’s unique challenges and assets, the Poverty to Prosperity pioneers identified five areas of focus: expanding industrial lands, utilizing natural resources, expanding agricultural trade, retaining local resources and focusing on career and technical education.

“It’s a holistic approach for the whole community,” Hart said.

The career and technical education piece of the Poverty to Prosperity strategy, which focuses on preparing students for career opportunities directly out of high school, is an integral part, because education is crucial for economic development. It had its share of snags in the beginning, such as scheduling conflicts and territorial issues.

“We have to give credit to our business community for bringing everybody to the table and keeping them there,” said Abby Lee, public information director at Treasure Valley Community College.

Ontario School District Superintendent Nicole Albisu said the three participating school districts — Ontario, Vale and Nyssa — have made huge efforts to work together for the benefit of the students.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” Albisu said, “but I believe we have a stronger relationship because of it.”

The program was created by a career and technical education committee, which is made of district superintendents, TVCC leaders and local business owners, as well as the members of Malheur County ESD. It has garnered special interest from the community as well as statewide attention.

“We’re getting a lot of recognition in Salem,” Lee said.

The career and technical education program relies on cooperation between the three participating school districts, TVCC and more than 20 local businesses. It has two parts: a welding program and an allied health program.

Currently there are 96 students from the three districts participating in the program.

Both pieces provide high school students with the opportunity to graduate high school with certifications and basic knowledge in the respective fields.

“It’s a curriculum and a plan that ties into jobs,” Hart explained. “I would much rather hire a local person to work at our hospital.”

The career and technical education program received a $200,000 grant in March 2013 to expand the program, and another class of junior students has been added.

“We’re building this bicycle as we ride it, which makes it exciting,” Hart said.

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