May 19, 2012 10:31:18 PM
A community can change a lot in 20 years. Service agencies open and close. Demographics shift. Things deemed important by one generation may barely register on the radar of the next.
That's why the United Way of Lowndes County is seeking public input with a Community Needs Assessment Survey. The 18-question survey asks questions about the biggest issues facing youth, services for those with disabilities, housing and transportation issues and barriers to health and quality of life.
The last comprehensive study was conducted in 1993 by the Junior Auxiliary of Columbus. At that time, delinquency prevention, education and unemployment topped the list of perceived unmet needs. Lack of affordable health care, a shortage of recreational facilities and teenage pregnancy were also concerns.
United Way Executive Director Jan Ballard said Friday she has a feeling those needs may change in response to shifts in demographics, which include an increase in retirees.
Without the survey, it's difficult to determine where the United Way's money might be most effective, Ballard said.
Currently, United Way of Lowndes County provides a portion of funding for 18 local agencies, with appropriations divided into four categories. The largest amount -- 29 percent -- goes toward agencies which provide crisis intervention and disaster relief, like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Contact Helpline.
The distribution is evenly split at 25 percent apiece for agencies helping youth and children and agencies which contribute to lasting change in the community and in people's lives. Health and quality of life issues receive the smallest allotment, 21 percent.
The survey will be a key component in not only determining the important issues but also in deciding what resources are available and how partnerships can be developed between agencies.
"People may be trying to recreate the wheel to address an issue," Ballard said. "We want the community to become better informed."
The process to develop a comprehensive plan will be lengthy though, possibly taking one to two years. After the needs assessments are returned and evaluated, focus groups will be organized.
The focus groups will be made up of human services providers, youth organizations, educators, law enforcement and other community members.
The changes may result in alterations to the allocations, but they may also make it possible for new agencies to get support.
"We have felt there are some very good organizations out there who have not received United Way funding," Ballard said. "Because of the recession, we haven't had the luxury of adding any new organizations without cutting the organizations we already fund."
But the first step is getting people to take the surveys.
"We encourage everyone to be stakeholders in this effort, because it will have an impact on our community," Ballard said. "This is their opportunity to provide their input."
To take the online survey, visit unitedwaylowndescounty.org. To have a paper survey sent via the U.S. Postal Service, call 662-328-0943. Surveys will also be available at various community service agencies in Columbus
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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