"I grew up in Community Action," LeAndra Estis of St. Paul said, and she's not joking.
At 40 years old, LeAndra has spent the second half her life participating in Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties (CAPRW) programs, using its services, volunteering on its boards, donating to the nonprofit and recommending it to other people.
“She maximized what Community Action could do for her, but did not take advantage of it,” said Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County Executive Director Dr. Clarence Hightower of LeAndra. He was executive director at CAPRW when she first encountered the agency.
LeAndra is now a state of Minnesota employee, a homeowner and an advocate for agencies that help people with low incomes. She credits much of her success to what she learned through Community Action.
“I dreamed of it,” LeAndra said of her journey away from poverty. “I did not see how it could happen, but I accomplished something. I made it. It’s pleasurable and rewarding.”
If you think you recognize LeAndra, you probably do. She’s a constant presence on advertising and promotion material for CAPRW. It’s her quote, “Community Action made me who I am today and has given me the tools to become the person I am striving to be,” that graces CAPRW’s website.
She bought her home through Habitat for Humanity in 2019, and her family was featured throughout the agency’s 2023 annual gala program.
“People think I’m rich because they see me on ads and on posters,” she said. “I’m not. I’m just doing good work. I love to advocate and give back.”
Life isn’t perfect for LeAndra and her three children, she was laid off four months after closing on her house. She’s had to apply for energy assistance despite holding multiple jobs. Yet, as a family they are still on a path that didn’t seem likely when LeAndra was a teenage mother raising her oldest daughter, DeQuaia, who is now 22.
LeAndra’s introduction to Community Action came through a community gathering where she lived. There she was told about Head Start and its connection to Community Action.
“I had seen the buses with the logo on it, but I didn’t know what Community Action was,” she recalls. After that event, she signed her daughter up for Head Start and a new world opened up to her. As an involved parent, she was encouraged to sit on a parents’ advisory council.
She wasn’t sure what she could offer, but she joined the committee. When she wasn’t working, or helping with Head Start, she began enrolling in the programs offered by CAPRW.
Personal growth, financial classes, mentoring programs. If it was offered, LeAndra wanted engage in any program that offered her an opportunity to improve her life. Through the agency’s car loan program, she purchased her first reliable vehicle.
“Everything I learned to do,” LeAndra said, “I learned from Community Action.”
It was through Community Action she learned about advocacy and how to be an advocate. It was Dr. Hightower who encouraged her to sit on the agency’s board.
“I give homage to him,” LeAndra said. “He knew he had it in me.”
It took a lot of convincing for LeAndra to agree to join the board, but once she did, she did it with gusto.
“She was able to use her voice to express concerns and the journey of low-income people,” Dr. Hightower said. “She had a powerful story to tell that represented Ramsey and Washington counties.”
Becoming an advocate has put her in places she never thought she’d end up.
“I sell my story, but I never sold out,” She said. “I’m the same girl that lived on Shelby in the hood. You can’t be ashamed of where you came from or where you’re going.”
Her youngest daughter, Arlonna, 17, knows her mother’s story isn’t typical, but it can be replicated if they use the resources available.
“Not a lot of people get this opportunity,” Arlonna said. “Not enough black people own a home.”
LeAndra has taken steps forward and back, but she has never given up or stopped encouraging others.
“Resilience and perseverance,” LeAndra said is what matters. “I try to deliver that message single handedly.”
Dr. Hightower said LeAndra is a great example of what can happen to clients who come to Community Action to seek a helping hand.
“You experience people right where they are, but that’s not the end of their story,” he said. “That’s temporary. You don’t have to be there forever. Folks can with a little bit of coaching, change their life.”