Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Research

With Aspire app, families in distress take control

School of Social Work’s stoplight-colored assessment tool helped 100 families set and reach goals in Cabarrus County.

a smart phone displaying Aspire app and hand tapping responses
The Aspire app allows social services clients to tap through a 55-question survey with stoplight-colored responses.

In this occasional series about Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, The Well looks at how staff, faculty and students are turning the words of the strategic plan into reality.

Carolina Next: Innovations for the Public Good“Everything everywhere all at once” is a great concept for a movie, but a terrible way to have to live your life.

“When a family is experiencing poverty, they are faced with many circumstances that feel overwhelming. How are they going to pay their rent? How are they going to buy groceries to feed their children? How can they get to work if their car breaks down? This gets really overwhelming. It can feel insurmountable,” said Beth Lowder, manager of the Community Aspirations Hub, an initiative of the School of Social Work’s Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab.

Serve to benefit society

As captain of this Carolina Next strategic initiative, Melissa Carrier identified the Community Aspirations Hub and the Aspire app as outstanding examples of the following objectives:

  • Objective 6.1: Engage with communities, including grassroots organizations and local governments, to solve problems and improve lives.
  • Objective 6.2: Grow partnerships with businesses, nonprofits and government to translate and implement research-based ideas and discoveries into practical applications and public use.

That’s why the hub offers families in crisis a tool “to break that complicated situation down into more manageable pieces,” she said. The Aspire app allows social services clients to tap through a 55-question survey with stoplight-colored responses to identify areas where they are red (suffering), yellow (struggling) or green (thriving). They see the results in the color-coded circles of a one-page “Life Map.”

Beth Lowder

Beth Lowder

The app helped Kathleen Taylor when she arrived in Cabarrus County last summer with three children and nowhere to live. Through a pilot program with the Department of Human Services, she used Aspire to set her family’s priorities and begin to rebuild their life in this southeastern county that is part of the larger Charlotte metro area.

“I’m a visual person, and the visuals gave me something to focus on. It helped me understand what I needed to work on first,” Taylor said.

Taylor began the work armed with her Life Map and with the help of Aspire-trained coach Angelik King, a member of the Cabarrus County DHS Prevention Unit. Using the app, they came up with action plans that answered questions like “What’s standing in the way? What steps come next? How long will it take?” King checked in regularly with Taylor on her progress and used the app to do follow-up assessments and plans to help Taylor achieve her goals.

responses to Stable Income show green option of pay day circled on a calendar, yellow option of filling in time sheet and red option of dollars folded into up and down arrows

In the Aspire app, families describe their situation based on photos and stoplight colors: green (thriving), yellow (struggling) or red (suffering).

Throughout the process, Taylor worked continuously and received a range of services from DHS and community partners that helped her keep her family intact. Now Taylor’s family has a house, their finances are in order and all her red responses are yellows.

“It was a long road, and I didn’t give up,” Taylor said. Taking the Aspire survey not only showed her where she needed help, it also revealed her strengths. “The survey helped my children’s hopes as well.”

Piloting partnership

Taylor’s family is one of 100 that Cabarrus County has served using the Aspire app in a pilot project that brought together two innovative programs.

Gary Nelson

Gary Nelson

At the School of Social Work, SIE Lab director Gary Nelson first identified the Poverty Stoplight as an innovation that could work in North Carolina. Nelson invited the founder to Carolina to talk about the program, which first served rural farmers in Paraguay but is now used by all types of organizations to reduce poverty in more than 40 countries. The SIE Lab became a global Poverty Stoplight Hub in 2018, adapting the program for U.S. use, including changing the name to something more strengths-based. They called the initiative the Community Aspirations Hub and the survey tool Aspire.

“Aspire appealed to us because it places families, their agency, aspirations and choices at the center of a complex change process where they are ‘authors of their lives’ with the support of others,” said Nelson, who oversees the Aspire program.

At about the same time, Karen Calhoun, director of Human Services in Cabarrus County, created the Prevention Unit to provide wrap-around services for clients in crisis, with the goal of keeping families intact. She was looking for an assessment tool, and the hub needed partners in the field to test their app’s real-world use. “Karen is a trailblazer in her field and is innovating in human service delivery in Cabarrus County within her agency and across the community,” Lowder said.

Karen Calhoun

Karen Calhoun

After 28 years in social services and seeing government “pouring billions of dollars into programs,” Calhoun said she wanted to find a better way for families to break the cycle of dependence and “climb out, one ladder rung at a time.”

The partnership has been satisfying for clients and coaches, Calhoun said. “The Aspire tool helps us meet those families where they are. The clients are their own architects. They’re in the driver’s seat. And that’s empowering.”

Next steps

After passing the 100-family milestone, Calhoun next wants to make the Aspire tool available for DHS staff to assess their own situations and make Life Maps. “We’re asking them to help everybody else, so now we’re asking, ‘How can we help you?’” she said.

example of a "life map" that includes red, yellow and green circles with text descriptions underneath , such as "We have enough income."

Aspire assessment results are presented on a document called a “Life Map.”

In the next phase of the partnership, the hub will shift from household information to an examination of community-level data. For example, if several families indicated in Aspire that they have had trouble locating or paying for a place to live, that could indicate an overall shortage of affordable housing. As an example, the DHS office in Cabarrus County can use data collected from the Aspire surveys to identify food deserts and respond by sending trucks with groceries to those locations in its partnership with Cooperative Christian Ministry.

“Some of these problems are structural problems and there’s only so much that a household-level intervention can do,” Lowder said. “We want to help stabilize families, and we want to help families set goals for themselves. But we also have to, in parallel, address the structural and systemic problems that are holding those challenges in place.”

The partners also hope to see Aspire expand across the state. “It’s easily replicated, and, in small rural counties, it could be transformative,” Calhoun said. “We’re truly just getting started.”