Agency’s executive director unafraid of challenges

People come into Allan Robison’s Altoona office every day, facing tragedy in their lives. It’s the job of the Blair County Community Action Agency he heads to come up with answers to help the elderly short on money, young mothers with no place to go and men and women who are in hard times because of sickness or layoffs.

Robison doesn’t step back when faced with overwhelming challenges.

He’s learned over the years that often the face of poverty can be your neighbor or the person you see in the mirror every morning.

Many people, he said, are just a few steps away – a paycheck or two – from hard times.

“The more you are involved in it, the more you see the need for it. The more you see the need for it, the more you get involved,” he said as he talked about what used to be known as the anti-poverty program that began 46 years ago under President Lyndon Johnson. That was back when Robison was fresh off his first job as drummer in a band that, he said, played in “bars and honky-tonks” throughout the East and which cut a couple of records before the group decided to call it quits.

Back in the late 1960s, Robison was searching for a career and ended up in various pursuits: from working for an architectural firm, a TV station, an insurance company, and a financial position with the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission, which was involved in economic development and saving the area’s rail lines.

Robison, expressing amazement, said he even ended up as the owner of a railroad for a weekend in an effort to save the rail spur between Altoona and Roaring Spring.

The Southern Alleghenies served as a training ground for many leaders he now works with, like Martin Marasco and Pat Miller of Altoona Blair County Development Corp.

In 1986, Robison saw an opportunity to go with Community Action.

He knew its former director Jim Pritchard, and he knew the agency had been profoundly involved in the development of many successful programs that are still around these days, like legal services for the poor, Head Start, Meals on Wheels and Improved Dwellings for Altoona.

He became the agency’s director if 1997, and although he is planning to retire from his position next March, he speaks with fervor about the need to help people and about the future of one of his passions, the revitalization of downtown Altoona.

A fiscal conservative

“I am a fiscal conservative,” said Robison, but as it turns out, the father of three and grandfather of six, is also a conservative with a heart.

“There is a desperate need for the services we provide,” he said.

Robison said his agency meets with and attempts to help more than 4,000 individuals each year.

He said that a recent report placed the rate in poverty in Blair County at 17 percent, or nearly one in five local residents.

A lot of the people coming to Community Action at 2100 Sixth Ave. for help are elderly. They live on fixed income, and often they are faced with the decision: “Do I heat my house or eat today?”

“It’s tough to see an elderly person walk in because they are having trouble dealing with their utility bills,” Robison said.

“Even though I am a fiscal conservative, that [the elderly poor] levels everything out. There has to be something for these people. There just has to be,” he emphasized.

The agency provides help to the poor to pay their utility bills. It has a weatherization program that makes basic repairs to homes, and it provides homeless assistance on a short-term basis.

Community Action works with a Blair County Court system faced with an onslaught of mortgage foreclosures. It offers credit counseling, and it works with veterans to prevent homelessness.

He called the agency’s help to veterans “a worthwhile endeavor.”

The agency has what Robison called a “crisis program.”

There is often a stigma about the poor, that they are living off the work of others and it is that point that Robison doesn’t hesitate to address.

Maybe one in 20 who come to his agency for help are trying to get something they don’t deserve, but the other 19 are truly in need, he said.

Sit in a meeting of his case managers, and Robison promised, “Your eyes would open up.”

“You hear their stories of incredible tragedy. It happens all day, every day,” he said.

He said his 23-member staff is experienced, and the meetings about the cases amount to “brain-storming,” seeking answers about how people can be helped.

The idea is stabilize lives that are in turmoil.

Many people are facing tragedy and Robison explains to them, “It’s nothing you did. … It’s just circumstances.”

A case on point

Kim Jones traveled to Altoona from New Jersey. She came with three children, fleeing from an abusive home where drugs were a problem.

Jones ended up in a woman’s shelter in Altoona and came to the Community Action Agency for help to find a place to live and to obtain employment.

Robison noticed something special about her. She was good natured.

“She was a breath of fresh air,” he said.

Step-by-step, Jones turned her life around to the point that the Community Action Agency hired her part time to work with people at the woman’s shelter and to help prepare individuals for job interviews.

Since coming to Altoona, Jones has married the Rev. Gary Jones.

She and her husband have a cleaning business, and they belong to a church called the New Creation in Christ Ministry.

Robison said he is very proud of Jones for working hard to rise above the circumstances that drove her to Altoona. She said, “This agency really helps people like me. They really do care.”

She said the people she meets in her job feel she really understands their circumstances, and in truth she does, because she herself was in their shoes not long ago.

Another person who knows Robison well is Don Witherspoon, president of the Blair County Chapter of the NAACP.

Many NAACP chapters have no permanent home, Witherspoon said, but Robison offered Witherspoon office space in his Sixth Avenue building.

“We’ve got a great partnership going,” said Witherspoon, talking about Robison and his agency.

“Allan has been a great friend,” he said, pointing out that the two sometimes play golf.

Coldest place on earth

Hanging in Robison’s office is a small drawing by Altoona artist Joe Servello depicting a set of drums, which turns Robison to his love of music and the fact that his first job out of high school, from 1961-66, was as a musician.

“I’ve played drums for 55 years,” he commented in a nonchalant manner, as if the drums were as much a part of his life as breath itself.

“I wished I was good enough to make a career out of it [drumming],” said Robison.

He and his band were almost that good.

Back in the early days, he was the drummer for JD & The Impressions, which cut four records.

The group included Joey Joy of Altoona on the guitar and saxophone, Dave Drysale of Nova Scotia on bass, Bob Griffith of Johnstown on the keyboard and Robison.

The band was managed by John D’Andrea of Altoona.

“I played the Peppermint Lounge in New York City,” said Robison, but in the end the story of the band turned out to be “We almost did it kind of stuff.”

It was an experience he loved but also one he wouldn’t want to do again.

The band’s end came after spending New Year’s Eve, 1965, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, a place Robison described as “the coldest place on Earth.”

The group was delayed in getting together back in the United States because Drysdale ran into a visa problem.

In the meantime, The Rascals recorded the song that Robison’s band was seeking to record, “Good Lovin’.”

The Rascals’ version became a smash hit in April 1966, and as Robison explained, his group decided to go their separate ways and find real-world jobs.

They never played together again, and, Robison said, his only contact now is with Joy, the Altoona native. They exchange Christmas cards.

Robison is known these days as a member of a band called Big Mac & The Fries, which plays around the area.

These days Robison is concerned about one city: Altoona.

He serves on the board of the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp.

“People are going to be surprised in the next four or five years,” he said, explaining that Penn State Altoona and UPMC Altoona are going to bring changes downtown.

This is what he wants to be part of, stating, “A lot of people are working real hard to change this picture [of downtown Altoona].”

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.