After months of research, listening and grant writing, the Community Foundation of Grant County and community partners are gearing up to launch a new pilot program aimed at addressing the persistent issue of child poverty in the county.

Dawn Brown, President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Grant County, said her organization took a call from the Lilly Endowment Fund to do thorough research on the most systemic issue in Indiana counties and focused on child poverty.

According to the latest 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau released in December 2019, 31 percent of Grant County children are living in poverty, the highest rate of any county in Indiana. The 4 percent increase from 2017 to 2018 accounts for approximately 400 more Grant County kids living in poverty, bringing the total number of children in poverty to around 4,090, according to the Community Foundation.

The Community Foundation received a Community Leadership Planning Grant last fall and conducted a deep dive on child poverty in the county. Their efforts included hiring a data analyst, collecting specific data, conducting individual interviews, evaluating town hall meetings, taking a board retreat, working with Thriving Families, Thriving Grant County (TFTGC) and doing the Voices Project –a project where groups of community members gathered for 27 hours straight to discuss what poverty actually looks like locally.

“So we’ve collected all of this amazing data. Now to be able to plug that in to some solutions in a grant application feels like we’re really on the right track to making data driven decisions, so it feels pretty good to be able to finally plug it all in and to make some decisions based on the reality of what’s going on here and not just negative narratives or you know old stories that people have been telling for a million years,” Brown said.

The Community Foundation has been awarded a $150,000 non-competitive implementation grant from Lilly Endowment and is one of 17 finalists in the running to receive up to $5 million in additional funding through a competitive grant to make a larger impact. Brown estimated Grant County had about a 50/50 shot of being awarded the larger grant out of the total pool of $36 million available.

Initial grant applications and concept papers were due March 13, Brown said, a few days before COVID-19 began to close restaurants, schools and businesses. While much was learned about child poverty in the county in the preceding months, Brown said COVID-19 has only made persistent issues worse for families in poverty.

“What COVID did is it just exacerbated that same problem where those who were marginalized before COVID are even more marginalized now. They were getting furloughed, they were getting laid off, they were trying to figure out how to feed their families,” Brown said. “So some of those things that we saw were a big problem before COVID are still a very big problem – and even much worse. So not a lot has changed unfortunately in that regard, and it just means that we picked unfortunately the right systemic issue to begin our work on.”

The grant monies the Community Foundation receives will be used to launch a new program aimed at alleviating child poverty called Thriving Mill Township. Brown said originally the plan was to launch a program that would serve all of Grant County, but evaluators advised to choose a smaller portion of the county to be able to better control, test and measure the effectiveness of the program.

Mill Township, which encompasses Gas City, Jonesboro and part of Marion, was selected for the pilot program because the data suggests that it has the highest rate of poverty with the lowest access to resources countywide, Brown said. The Community Foundation data found 4,469 Mill Township residents, or 43 percent, live in poverty or are working poor, including 1,640 children.

“Most of the social service agencies are located in Marion versus Mill Township has one childcare facility. They’re a food desert as well,” Brown said. “They don’t have any transportation system, so even getting to the places they need to utilize services is difficult.”

Thriving Mill Township will be a collaborative program including TFTGC, Mississinewa Community Schools, the cities of Jonesboro and Gas City and their elected officials, Project Leadership, the Gas City Area Chamber of Commerce and most importantly, Mill Township residents.

Brown said while there are some ideas and structures put in place, the program is fluid so that residents can share their experiences and give their input on what would actually be helpful to them rather than organizations unilaterally making decisions.

“We’re not doing anything to people. We’re doing things with people, and that really is the most important thing,” Brown said.

Specifically, one major goal will be to join the expertise of professionals and the lived experience of residents and leaders to develop best practices, she said.

“What we realized is that the professional expert is only really 50 percent of the solution,” Brown said. “We really need what we call practical experts in the room as well. We heard that clearly through our Voices Project where (people said) it’s great that there’s a professional that knows all the laws and the rules and how the government works on certain things but it doesn’t do much good if you don’t have the mom in the room who has the childcare issue and can explain what the reality of that looks like... The best solution is really where those two points of view intersect, and we just haven’t been doing that for whatever reason.”

This model of professional and practitioner collaboration may look like conversations with state officials on how to address food insecurity for children, especially during summer and winter breaks, while also talking with Mississinewa’s food services manager and parents about what hurdles are in the way of kids getting food.

One idea to address food insecurity is rolling out a food truck, or what Brown calls a “veggie van,” that would be equipped to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables or even full lunches to children when they are not in school. The food itself could potentially be supplemented through partnerships with local food alliances, gardens and neighborhoods, she said.

“Take it to the neighborhoods where the people are to make sure their kids that need it most get it whether they have transportation or they don’t have transportation,” Brown said. “Have it at the football game on a Friday night, that way if people are coming to the game they can access some healthy foods when they’re there.”

Another idea Thriving Mill Township could work with the community on is equipping parents who want to open a business to become “mompreneurs” or “popreneurs” – a spin on the word entrepreneur – to get certified and open up childcare centers in their own homes, fighting against the current childcare desert.

“How could we help them become Paths to Quality certified by the state so their childcare center could be high quality, could have a fence in their backyard so the playground was safe, could have a curriculum they followed and it could be in the neighborhood so that other neighbors that didn’t have transportation could easily take their kids to someplace close?” Brown said. “That could be a great solution for an entrepreneur, in this case a mom, it would be a great solution for neighbors to have access to safe, quality childcare, and those could pop up all around.”

Overall, Brown said the goal is to work with the people of Mill Township to develop a model that other communities in Grant County and across all of rural Indiana can adopt to address child poverty. The program will continue to test and measure and use data to drive decision making, she said.

Brown said she expects to receive the $150,000 grant around early October with Thriving Mill Township beginning in early spring 2021. The final grant application for the $5 million additional grant is due to Lilly Endowment Aug. 28, she said.
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