Malissa Buzan finds a way to fill needs.
Serving the community can be a complex task. But for Malissa Buzan, the Director of Community Services for Gila County, the approach is simple.
“Find a need and fill it,” she says. “I don’t like to duplicate services. But when there’s a need, I like to be involved in that initiative or program.”
That attitude has landed her on the boards of many non-profit and civic organizations in addition to her county job, where she directs a team of twenty-two and collaborates with an array of social service providers throughout the region that range from the Arizona Youth Partnerships to senior care, health care, food, and low-income housing.
“It’s a community effort to move someone toward self-sufficiency,” she says.
Malissa Buzan embodies the spirit of community service.
She acknowledges, without judgement or discouragement, that at any given time, some people will be going through a rough patch and need a helping hand.
A cold winter causes heating bills to skyrocket or the roof to cave in.
A fire takes everything from the family whose house is uninsurable.
With over 25 years in the field, Malissa knows that sometimes the rough patch is just another in a long patchy road. But for some, with the help of many, problems can be overcome.
“Some never come back in our doors,” she says, “I’m very proud of that.”
The Gila County Central Heights Complex, 5515 S. Apache in Globe, is open Monday-Friday, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm.
“Being a ‘one-stop’ for social services is a big asset for the community,” Malissa notes.
On a rainy Wednesday in March the offices are buzzing. People fill out forms use computers in the resource center. Members of the Southern Gila County Network, a collective of over 20 civic, corporate and non-profit service providers, file into the conference room for their monthly meeting. They have a presentation, exchange information and form relationships.
“I like the partnerships,” says Malissa. “I don’t like government doing everything. I like leveraging dollars, and I like people working together to do what they do best.”
What Malissa does best is get things done.
When Globe-Miami lost their clothing bank, she opened Second Chance clothing store in Claypool. Anyone who needs them can get free clothes.
When old homes with cesspools became too expensive for her Housing Rehabilitation grants, she joined the Tri-City Sanitation District (TRSD) board and now serves as its President.
When kids needed dental work, gloves, cleats or Christmas presents, she helped form Community Kids, Inc., a non-profit for kids from low-income families.
“Whatever they needed at that point, is what we were doing,” Malissa says; she lights up when she talks about the work.
In time those needs were met by United Fund and other organizations. Community Kids took a step back and ultimately dissolved, true to Malissa’s distaste for duplication.
MAKING THE MOST OF IT
“We’re a small community,” Malissa emphasizes. “And I believe we need to be united.”
Her wish is that people put their efforts into making the programs that already exist, even better.
“You can work toward something within a program or agency or non-profit, and have it encompass more,” Malissa explains. “That’s what I saw in GILA House.”
When Horizon announced they were shutting down the local Domestic Violence (DV) shelter, a decision was made to open Alderman House, under the GILA House organization.
“This was truly a community initiative,” Malissa says, describing the collaboration between the county, the City of Globe, United Fund, Freeport McMoran, and other community and faith groups.
GILA House is a local nonprofit that provides interim housing for mostly low-income residents who get burned out of their homes. They have shelters in Miami and Globe. Malissa serves on its board.
Although five to six families get burned out of their homes each year, sometimes the houses sit empty. Malissa sees those empty houses as part of homeless solution.
“We spent all that time fixing those houses up, and getting donations,” she says, “If they are sitting empty, why not offer them to homeless families with children?”
As part of her job, Malissa also serves the board of Wildfire, a state-wide community action association that advocates at the state and federal level for low-income people.
“It’s not that we’re even asking for more money or more programs,” Malissa explains. “Our effort goes primarily into opposing laws that make the most vulnerable people in the state hurt more.“
She cites as chronic culprits, laws regulating the payday lending business, now morphed into title lending.
Wildfire’s mission is to ignite community action to end poverty in Arizona.
“That’s a big, big agenda,” Malissa remarks.
Although the Gila County homeless numbers are nominally low (10-30), the effort involves many in the community.
The Homeless Coalition seeks money from local businesses to house the homeless. Free meals at the Copper Hen in Globe and the Presbyterian church in Miami as a way to provide sustenance, and identify those in need.
The Second Chance Clothing store in Claypool serves hot soup and gives out free hats and gloves.
Not everyone in town is part of the solution.
Malissa has little regard for a trailer park that targets the vulnerable.
With tax-refund checks in hand, low-income earners are sold old trailers, often in disrepair, she explains.
“Everybody wants to own their own place,” Malissa understands, but sees it as a scam, with buyers ending up back on the street.
“They get in a bind, can’t pay the lot rent, and accrue late charges. After four or five months, they’re kicked out. With nothing but the clothes on the back.”
“And guess what? That trailer is for sale again.”
PATH OF SERVICE
Malissa never planned for a life of community service.
A 1976 graduate of Miami High School, she set out to become a physical therapist. While a student, she had a part-time job at a daycare center in a low-income neighborhood. When the owners took ill, Malissa found herself in charge of everything from government food programs to employee paychecks .
“It was a whole new learning experience for me,” she says.
Malissa also saw how young mothers struggled, and it was time for a child of her own, she returned to Globe-Miami.
She took a job with Child Protective Services (CPS), first as a contractor, and then directly, as a parent aide and case manager.
“I got a whole different perspective on what’s out there,” says Malissa, alluding to the complexity of challenges families face.
“I was working with families, trying to teach them good parenting skills and they were worried about being evicted and their utilities being shut off.”
In 1994, left her job at CPS to Malissa went to work for the Community Action Program (CAP), a county service that helps people with their rent and utilities.
CAP is one of four programs offered by the Community Services Division to help Gila County residents remain self-sufficient.
The others are Gila Employment and Special Training (GEST), which provides work training for those with disabilities, One Stop, and Housing. Within Housing, there are programs for Emergency Repairs, Home Rehabilitation and Weatherization; a program that lowers utility costs by making homes more energy-efficient.
All recipients of community services go through an application and assessment process.
In 1996, the Weatherization program was in danger of being cut, with a budget so small it was deemed unworthy of the paperwork it required. Malissa, working in the CAP program, spoke up in its defense.
“It didn’t make sense to me to keep paying people’s utilities,” she says, “and not address the reason they could not pay them.”
Malissa moved into management, and after twenty years of service to the county, she was named Director of Community Services for Gila County.
“I love what she does, what she stands for, says Lisa Wilckens, fiscal manager for the Community Service Division. “I love how she just handles it all.”
“People forget that she’s only one person,” she adds.
In addition to her work at the county and non-profits, Malissa makes time for family, friends, and church; she loves to work in her yard. She considers herself blessed, with a good job, benefits and retirement. She also sees her challenge.
“I want to help everybody,” she says. “And I want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Malissa to have a homeless woman with her child living with her, because she could not stand to see them on the street.
“I’ve been burned a lot,” she says, “but I don’t regret it.”