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A new $1 million project based at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention will use federal Recovery Act funds to help women in rural eastern North Carolina overcome poverty and improve their health.

HOPE (Health, Opportunity, Partnerships and Empowerment) Accounts will receive funds from the National Institutes of Health Challenge Award program. The program was created as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment act of 2009.

The project will recruit low-income and overweight women to join HOPE Account circles. The circles of 8-12 women will be support groups designed to teach women how to open and maintain savings accounts to achieve economic goals. Each participant in the project will open an Individual Development Account (IDA) and will have the opportunity to receive matching funds to apply toward furthering her education, buying a home or creating a business.

The circles will also provide support and strategies for weight loss, financial literacy and moving out of poverty. The researchers will study the impact of circle participation on improvements in health and socioeconomic status.

HOPE Accounts is related to HPDP’s recent core project, HOPE Works. HOPE Works seeks to help women overcome social disadvantages, such as low income, unemployment, or lack of education so that they can focus on improving their health. During this project HOPE Circle participants have developed microenterprise skills and have started a small successful business, Threads of HOPE. Despite these successes, economic barriers related to acquiring education, property and the collateral necessary to get a small business loan have remained for the participants.

“This project will really let us fill those gaps,” said Marci Campbell, PhD, MPH, RD, principal investigator of the study. Campbell is an HPDP Research Fellow and Professor of Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. “We are thrilled to be able to bring these funds into the community in eastern North Carolina using a model that has proven to be successful around the world.”

HOPE Accounts will bring immediate and long-term job opportunities to eastern North Carolina. The project will hire three full-time community coordinators in Sampson and Duplin counties as well as up to 25 part-time HOPE Account Circle leaders. The community members selected for these positions will receive job training to help them find future positions after the project is over. In addition, the small businesses created through HOPE Accounts will improve the local economies of the communities in the project.

The research team announced the new grant to a chorus of cheers at the 5-year anniversary celebration of HOPE Works, a 4k Fun Walk and Health Fair in held Clinton, NC on September 26. Imani Rivera, community coordinator for HOPE Works, said she was thrilled to hear the news.

“This is as close to a miracle as we can do ourselves,” Rivera said. “This project will bring many blessings to our community.” Rivera is a community coordinator for HOPE Works, and the new HOPE Accounts project, along with a new HPDP core research project will allow her and other HOPE Works core staff to continue their work for another 5 years.

According to Campbell, an estimated 20,000 Challenge Grant applications were submitted to the federal government, but only about 200 were funded. Campbell was especially pleased to receive the funds given the stiff competition.

“This project will help people begin to build wealth , and we think that is really powerful,” Campbell said. “We think it’s really what the stimulus funds are supposed to do.”

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