Prosper Waco is getting nearly $500,000 in national-level expert help to get started tackling Waco’s biggest social and economic challenges.

The federally funded National Resource Network will spend the next year helping the antipoverty initiative to create detailed strategies to improve income, health and education levels in Greater Waco.

Network officials on Sept. 8 will begin a series of monthly visits to help Waco realize the goals articulated by the Prosper Waco planning process.

Waco stood out among cities nationwide that applied for the help and will get the most substantial assistance, with an “all-star team” of experts in education, health and economic development, said David Eichenthal, the network’s executive director, who has agreed to directly oversee the Waco process.

“What we are really focusing on is going to places that are ready and willing,” he told Waco City Council members last week.

“We asked, ‘Is this is a project or a program, or are you really trying to change the way you’re doing business?’ I thought it was incredibly impressive that there was a clarity of purpose that we’re really trying to change the way we do things.”

The council agreed in a memorandum of understanding to pay $122,000 to match the network’s funding of about $370,000. The work includes meeting with leaders in all sectors of the Waco community and creating strategic plans based on demographic research and “best practices” in other cities.

Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the network will help Prosper Waco, which officially began work in February, get off on the right foot.

“It’s so critical that we are successful early on,” he said. “We can’t wait three years to be successful. This gives us much stronger footing to build on.”

The idea of Prosper Waco is to align existing community institutions around common goals to help residents move up the economic ladder.

Prosper Waco last month adopted five-year targets for community goals such as improving kindergarten-readiness and college completion, reducing the number of uninsured residents and decreasing unemployment and poverty rates.

Prosper Waco Executive Director Matthew Polk said Waco leaders need some expertise to develop strategies to realize those ambitions.

For example, it’s hard to know where to begin tackling the goal of increasing employment among young adults, he said.

A recent study by the Upjohn Institute found that some 1,900 people ages 16 to 24 are “disengaged” — not going to school or working. Prosper Waco’s goal is to get 900 of them into the workforce or education system.

“We want to get more young people in the community on the job or in a classroom in a way that helps their long-term success,” Polk said. “The very real question is: How do you find this youth cohort? And how do you provide support and access to make sure that more of them take advantage of these opportunities?”

Duncan said he thinks the opportunities exist for those young adults to be successful.

“If we can put a name and a face to those 1,900 16- to-24-year-olds, I know we have the resources to get them a job or into a classroom,” he said.

But he said there is a “huge disconnect” between needs and resources in Waco, one that the National Resource Network can help bridge.

“That’s been our talk all along,” he said. “We don’t need a lot of outside money. We need strategies. We need specific guidance, and we need some help in connecting all the resources.”

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