By Angela H. Hill
County residents concerned about pervasive issues affecting Patrick County are invited to bring their energy, experience, and insight to a new community group that began meeting this past summer.
Called The Patrick County Community Coalition, the group will focus on five key areas: drug abuse and prevention, the aging population and issues surrounding aging, mental and physical health and wellness, education, and economic development.
Lisa Martin, senior program manager at Reynolds Homestead and coalition organizer, said she hopes professionals as well as people from the church and community organizations – anyone with the time and interest – will join the group of 60 or so county residents now involved.
The coalition last met January 12, and Martin is currently setting up the next meeting date and time. A few of the initiatives discussed at the last meeting include joining with the DEA and the sheriff’s office to make the April prescription drug disposal a community event, and providing local retailers with information kits to help with tobacco merchandising as it applies to minors.
SFC Doug Perry, who is a civil operations specialist with the Va. Army National Guard Counter Drug Task Force, is helping the coalition organize and gather data so that it will become a sustainable group. He’s working with similar coalitions in Lynchburg, Virginia Beach and Martinsville/Henry County.
“The Drug Task Force is specifically focused on prevention work with community-based coalitions,” Perry explained. He said his role is to help coalitions focus on leadership and data collection, then move on to planning and action.
“The turnout has been amazing,” Perry said, noting that nearly 30 people attended the September, October and November meetings. Different people are coming to each meeting, he added, and they include those who work at hospitals, hospice, EMS, recovery groups, adult education, community groups such as The Ruritans, and the Reynolds Homestead.
Director of Reynolds Homestead Julie Walter-Steele was one of only four people to come to the coalition’s first meeting last summer, Martin said, and added that Walter-Steele is committed to Reynolds Homestead being part of the community effort.
“We feel that along the lines of the way we work at the Homestead, we can accommodate more together than we can individually,” Martin said. “Sometimes it takes an organization that can help facilitate that, to bring together different organizations and people who all have the same goal to make sure we’re not duplicating efforts.
“There’s a gap that needs to be filled by an organization that provides the impetus to get it going,” Martin continued. “Hopefully, that becomes self-sustaining.”
The process begins with the assessment phase of collecting data because it helps tell the story of the community. “Data tells us the root causes and local conditions, not just ‘why?’ but ‘why is it happening here?’ because Patrick County looks different than Franklin County, Danville and Roanoke,” Perry said.
Next, the coalition will look for proper representation from the community. “The coalition has to be culturally competent,” Perry said. “We don’t want to leave a group out. We need not just county administrators, law enforcement and school systems. We need parents, grandparents. We need businesses, we need media. If you can think of it, we need that representation at the table.
“If they’re not represented as we get into our strategic action planning, we’re going to overlook somebody and hurt our effectiveness,” Perry continued.
In the planning phase, the coalition will examine the root causes identified during the assessments, and select strategies to reduce or eliminate those root causes. Coalition members will continue to monitor and evaluate actions and results.
“My job is to help coalitions identify what the problems are, develop mission statements and objectives and goals, and strategic action planning,” Perry said. “A lot of people want to do programming, and it’s great and needed, but programming by itself isn’t successful. An individual strategy motivates a person to do good or change, but you have to creative a positive environment to go with that.”
Perry said the coalition will look at evidence-based strategies. “Education, building skill and providing support – we do those things very well through our churches, schools, Scouting, 4H.”
Another strategy involves the environment; how to create access to and reduce barriers to good stuff, Perry said. The coalition looks at changing consequences and the physical environment, he continued, such as lighting dark areas that attract drug dealing or removing electronic cigarettes from a teen’s line of vision.
Martin said one of the underlying issues in Patrick County is the generational poverty sparked by the pullout of manufacturing and tobacco from the local economy, and sustained by the fact that not enough new business has been able to fill that void.
“It’s definitely a symptom that has to be managed,” Martin said.
Perry agreed, and said that economic development is the “root cause of everything.” It affects everything from substance abuse to eating habits. He pointed out that in the Virginia health rankings released in 2015 as part of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report, Patrick County was listed as 120 out of 133 counties and cities.
That bothered him, Perry said. As he worked with coalitions across Virginia he felt the need to help a coalition come together to address problems here at home.
“The biggest things that hurt us were quality of care issues,” Perry said. “Getting people in for check-ups, dental; building a healthy community to bring jobs in and to bring jobs in to build that healthy community.”
Martin said anyone interested in attending a Patrick County Community Coalition meeting is welcome to call her at (276) 694-7181, extension 22, or email her at email@example.com.