Meet Cassandra, a participant of The Upward Fund

Upward Fund Supports Hardworking Angelenos

Cassandra (Cassie) Ramirez, a former foster youth, did pretty much everything right to create a stable, successful adulthood. After graduating from UCLA in 2016 with a degree in sociology and education studies, she found jobs that let her help people at the YMCA in Pasadena and as personal trainer and rehab specialist at a CrossFit gym.

Still, even with her BA and continued pursuit of certifications to increase her skills, her income wasn’t quite enough to cover all the costs of living in L.A. She wound up relying on credit cards for things like groceries and gas. The mounting debt added to the stress of irregular, inadequate income. “I loved that I could help people, but I felt like I was floating and partially drowning,” she says.

She dreamed of becoming a firefighter — a career that would let her serve others and provide a good income, benefits, and a pension. But joining a fire department is a lengthy, expensive, complicated process. “There’s no clear route in or much written about how to do it,” says Cassie. You need time and money to make the transition.

Then, in December 2022, Cassie got a call from Jorge Camarena, a program director at Journey House, a Pasadena-based nonprofit that helps former foster youth. Camarena knew Cassie and her situation. He had just learned about a new program from The Change Reaction (TCR) called The Upward Fund, and he wanted to nominate her.

The Upward Fund provides $425 a month in unrestricted direct cash assistance to hardworking Angelenos like Cassie for up to two years. All Upward Fund participants must be at least 18 years old, working at least 30 hours a week, living in permanent housing, and on a route toward greater self-sufficiency. They are referred by social workers and other front-line staff working at one of the 200-plus nonprofits that TCR partners with. Partners include Journey House, Homeboy Industries, Ready to Succeed, Door of Hope, LA Family Housing, and Mass Liberation.

Camarena asked Cassie if she was interested in being referred for an Upward Fund grant. “It was exciting and flattering to even be considered, that someone was thinking about me in that way,” she says.

Cassie quickly got accepted into The Upward Fund and received her first $425 installment in January 2023. She immediately used the money to pay some bills—and began focusing on pursuing a firefighter career. “It gave me time to go to fire stations and ask questions and learn what I needed to do. I could make pit stops at various fire stations and learn,” says Cassie. The money also helped her pay for the written test and physical exam required by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), each of which cost about $150.

When Cassie didn’t land any job offers, she went back to visit the fire chief of Pasadena to find out why. “I learned that I had to retake the written test and get over a 90; I’d gotten an 89. He told me that 90 is the cutoff line stations look for. I never would have known that on my own.” The money afforded her the chance to reflect and regroup. Then to study harder, and to travel to San Diego where she retook the written test.

This time, she scored above 90. She was now in the running for jobs. By March, just three months after being enrolled in the Upward Fund, Cassie began landing interviews with fire departments. “By May, I had a conditional job offer in Redwood City. You could see the help the grant was making.”

When Working Hard Isn’t Enough

The Change Reaction created the Upward Fund after hearing multiple stories from partner organizations about their clients’ ongoing economic struggles. These are the people who work hard every day to make Los Angeles run yet still face financial gaps that threaten to undermine their stability. Some, like Cassie, need time and money to take tests to support a career upgrade. Others need tools to do tasks that will allow them to increase their income or strike out on their own. Still others lack funds for emergencies like car repairs, appliance malfunctions or medical expenses, costs that can quickly escalate, sap earnings, and lead to serious debt or even homelessness.

The Change Reaction is founded on a deep-seated commitment to hardworking Angelenos—the school bus drivers and teachers, the firefighters and medical technicians, waiters and baristas—and the social workers, nurses, and other dedicated professionals who work to help them thrive. It operates according to the guiding belief that working people have a right to stable housing and lives free from financial anxiety and stress.

The Change Reaction founder Greg Perlman hit upon the Upward Fund as a way to buttress the efforts of hard-working Angelenos—specifically, those earning too much to be eligible for state and federal benefits but not enough to cover basic expenses in L.A. “It’s the forgotten group, the working people. Everyone thinks they’re doing fine, but they struggle too,” says Perlman. “Most non-profit programs and government subsidies are cut off the minute you make $25,000/year.  We’re saying, ‘We love you. We want to help.’

Direct cash programs are gaining national and global popularity, due in part to COVID-related shutdowns, and the resulting widespread realization that when people cannot earn enough to cover their expenses, what they need is access to immediate, reliable cash. As a growing body of research shows, consistent cash helps people move onto an upward trajectory in their lives and improve their communities. In California, there are some 40 public and private direct cash assistance programs operating or about to do so. L.A. County recently launched a three-year direct cash assistance program, one of the country’s largest and a sign of the growing national awareness that a lack of resources does not equal a lack of resourcefulness.  In an 18-month direct cash assistance program in Stockton, California, program participants’ income stability doubled — relieving stress and anxiety and creating more opportunity to plan. Participants also reported more energy, emotional health, and wellbeing, and fewer barriers to full time employment. 

However, the Upward Fund is unique among these types of programs for a couple reasons. For one thing, while many guaranteed basic income programs choose participants through a lottery, The Change Reaction staff hand-selects Upward Fund participants based on personal referrals from nominators who have developed deep relationships not only with The Change Reaction but also with people in their communities. Upward Fund is also unique in its focus on being a bridge for working Angelenos on a clear path to greater economic stability. Rather than serving as an additional source of income for those struggling to get by, Upward Fund offers targeted support for participants on a route toward not just surviving but thriving, on their own, soon. 

Working with partner nominators fulfills a key aim of The Change Reaction: providing more resources to social workers, nurses, and other change agents to help them do their jobs, make more impact, and feel more fulfilled. Participants must check in monthly with Canary. Participants also attend three one-hour Zoom sessions about financial literacy. The program’s high-touch, personal approach exemplifies the organization’s belief that every individual matters and deserves to live a dignified life of their own choosing.

Sparking an Upward Spiral of Positivity

The Change Reaction staff members and donors read every grant request and personally interact with change agents and many participants, allowing them to participate in the upward spiral of positivity that comes from changing lives. On a Wednesday meeting in January, Melissa Champion, a program manager overseeing Upward Fund, shared the news that Cassie had made the move north for her new job and was settling in. The entire table of staff members took part in celebrating Cassie’s success. “What a great investment,” said Wade Trimmer, The Change Reaction president, clearly uplifted to hear this success story.

Other staff members shared details of the trajectory of other Upward Fund participants and their joy at their success. “We have gotten so many notes saying that this $425/month was a game-changer for people,” said Perlman. “We need these people to help us survive as a community. They are teaching our kids, serving our meals.”

In 2024, Upward Fund reupped its commitment to the first two cohorts of participants and is focusing on additional ways to support their career advancement, such as by funding scholarships and trainings. “We’re asking some deeper questions about what they’re doing to improve their income, to get from $20/hour to, say, $25/hour. We’ll also provide a scholarship for up to $3000 for anything related to their profession where a certification will increase their income.”

The Life Changing Magic of Unrestricted Cash

Cassie accepted the offer from the fire department in Redwood City, in northern California. She used the Upward Fund money to help pay for her move north and get started in her new job. She had to lay out $1000 for her firefighting uniform and cover all kinds of expenses associated with attending the fire academy, including textbooks, binders, pens, foam rollers, even donuts and LaCroix for the people at the various stations where the trainings took place. The Upward Fund money enabled her to meet these costs, and to do so without debt or anxiety.

Today, a year after getting her first check from Upward Fund, she is successfully employed at the Redwood City Fire Department. Her starting salary: $88,000 a year. This is triple what she was earning as a personal trainer. “It’s wild. I can’t even fathom how that’s possible,” she says. “The Upward Fund grant has been so helpful in making all this happen.”

This year, Cassie plans to get certified to use drones to serve in her fire department’s drone program. “There is a misconception that the female in the department is going to hold you back. There were only three females in the academy and I’m the only one who finished. I want to make sure I’m pulling my weight if not more to help the rest of the team. I’m currently working on a boater’s license, so I’ll have that too. I’m thinking that, if I can expand what I can provide, I’m more valuable.”