Partnerships in Clay County Easing New Struggles Brought on by COVID-19

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Tara Gardner, program director of the Health Partnership, said, “Family Connection is the hub of the county,” and working together helps streamline resources and community outreach.

Clay County has its share of struggles. No one knows this better than Eddie Watson, coordinator of Clay County Family Connection for eight years and a member of the Community Health Center Board for five.

“If you look at the data, Clay lags the rest of the state in every measure of child well-being, from test scores and poverty to health and well-being,” said Watson. “So, when a crisis like COVID-19 strikes, the impact only exacerbates already dire conditions.”

But perhaps timing was on the county’s side. The Family Connection Collaborative had been working closely for the past two years with the Clay County Health Partnership in addressing the needs of the community, and the wheels were set in motion to move the Health Partnership from under the Health Center and merge it with Family Connection beginning in July.

Clay is one of 11 counties designated as a Two Georgias Initiative Community and the Health Partnership receives funding from Healthcare Georgia Foundation. When the pandemic hit, the Health Partnership was able to take funds earmarked for programs that subsequently had been canceled because of the virus and donate it to Family Connection.

More than 80 families received vouchers for $50 worth of food and cleaning supplies from Rubo’s, the county’s only grocery store, and another 120 families were put on a waiting list. Nearly 45% of children in Clay are living in poverty, which is more than double the state percentage, according to the latest KIDS COUNT data.

The crisis put plans for a future food bank on the fast track, according to Tara Gardner, program director of the Health Partnership. “We have all these families on the waiting list for food boxes, but we don’t have the funds,” she said, adding that Clay has the highest food insecurity rate in the state. “That’s why we decided to move ahead with the food bank.”

Renovations have begun to convert the old Head Start building provided by the county commissioners into what will be the county’s first food bank. Feeding the Valley has been working with the Enrichment Service Center, another Family Connection partner. “They have aided in providing food in the past and will be a vital part of our food bank,” Watson said. However, it will take about $10,000 to get the food bank open, which Watson and Gardner hope will come from grants and donations.

Gardner, who had formed a coalition of more than 50 local, regional, and state partners to address what she describes as a laundry list of health disparities, said, “Family Connection is the hub of the county,” and working together helps streamline resources and community outreach.

That teamwork has already proved invaluable. When Georgia’s Shelter in Place Order took effect April 3, work began immediately to disseminate information about everything from testing availability and CDC guidelines to school updates and mental health services through mailings, social media, phone calls, and newsletters.

Classes went online, meetings became virtual, and efforts continue to make available the technology necessary to function in a socially distanced world. “We still have 66 students who need iPads,” Gardner said. “And many others don’t have an internet connection at home.”

While the most immediate needs are of top concern, greater financial hardship will most likely be felt in the coming months. “Many landlords and power companies are being lenient, but we know that will not last forever,” Watson said. “We expect those needs to come later.”  Part of the Health Partnership’s donation to Family Connection included $2,000 that can be used for emergency situations, such as utility and rent payments. “Three local churches also have been valuable assets in providing food and emergency power funds to families in need,” he said.

COVID-19 also has slowed the construction of a state-of-the-art health clinic, a partnership between the county and Mercer University School of Medicine. Originally slated to open this summer, the clinic will be located behind Fort Gaines Health and Rehab Center and will provide the nearly 3,000 residents of the county with much-needed health care access. “We have only one doctor in the county and her building was in terrible need of repair,” Watson said, “and many of our residences do not have adequate transportation to go out of county for their health needs.”

Meanwhile, Mercer has been offering drive-through COVID testing in the county, and hopes are that the clinic will open sometime in the fall. “Family Connection has been a supportive voice for Mercer coming into the county, and has been instrumental in connecting partners, such as New Horizons Mental Health, with Mercer,” Watson said.

Gardner said the community is excited for the clinic’s opening. “If we can meet the basic needs of health care, food, and essentials, then there may well be other mechanisms that will enrich our residents’ lives,” she said. “It’s been a long time waiting for one of the poorest counties in the state to finally get some type of relief.”


Bill Valladares
GaFCP Communications Director

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Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GaFCP) is a public-private partnership created by the State of Georgia and investors from the private sector to assist communities in addressing the serious challenges facing children and families. GaFCP also serves as a resource to state agencies across Georgia that work to improve the conditions of children and families. Georgia KIDS COUNT provides policymakers and citizens with current data they need to make informed decisions regarding priorities, services, and resources that impact Georgia’s children, youth, families, and communities.