Helpers in Lumpkin County Found Everywhere During the Pandemic

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by Diana St. Lifer

The African proverb “It takes a village” takes on even more meaning when the village itself is struggling amid a public health crisis. Proving this to be true were business owners, volunteers, and school officials in Lumpkin County who are finding ways to help the community while facing their own COVID-related challenges.

“When the pandemic shut everything down, we looked around our store and saw it empty of customers but full of toys,” said John Clower, who owns Giggle Monkey Toys in Dahlonega with his wife Tammy. “We knew we needed to get the toys into the hands of children…and Lumpkin County Family Connection would be our best resource for helping with this project.”

While new toys were probably not a high priority for families in quarantine, the Clowers understood the positive impact developmentally appropriate play would have during this difficult time. “Toys help children with cognitive, physical, communicative, social/emotional and sensory development. All these skills are needed to help children grow into healthy adults,” Clower explained. “During the quarantine, families were struggling financially, hurting emotionally and worrying about their children academically.”

Giggle Monkey Toys has had a longstanding relationship with Family Connection — from being a Toys for Tots collection site to providing donations to the Backpack Buddies drive. Clower reached out to Family Connection Executive Director Brigette Barker, and together they coordinated a donation program that ultimately put more than $4,000 worth of toys into the hands of 120 children. Toys, games, puzzles and books were chosen for families according to the child’s age and interests. “We wanted to spread joy and help families in their new normal,” Clower said.

The toys also helped alleviate stress and anxiety undeniably elevated by COVID and that, Barker said, could have caused a ripple effect to a more serious issue. For the past three years, Lumpkin Family Connection has been a member, along with Dade and Floyd counties, of the Family Support Cohort that focuses on child abuse and neglect prevention.

In Lumpkin, the rate of children with a substantiated incident of child abuse and/or neglect has been higher than the state’s for more than a decade. “Being above the state average is a concern,” Barker said, “but we are starting to move the needle and see those numbers come down. And that’s great news to us.”  According to the latest KidsCount data for 2018, Lumpkin’s rate per 1,000 was 9.8 compared to the state’s 4.2.

Those numbers, however, also are a reflection of the poverty rate in the state, which Barker describes as a “huge underlying factor” to abuse and neglect. “When you look at Lumpkin’s poverty data, we aren’t worse than the state average,” she said. “But when you compare the state’s poverty level to the national average, you’ll see that Georgia is not doing well.” (According to a 2019 U.S. Census report, 14.7 percent of the state’s population is impoverished, compared with 12.3 percent across the United States.)

The county began its work in the cohort by focusing on poverty education and training, and developing strategies to ensure that families’ basic needs are met. “Our stance is to take a strength-based approach and increase protective factors,” she said.  “Each year we build on the work and see where it needs to go.” When the pandemic hit, the work became even more crucial.

Outreach continued virtually and concentrated on helping families cope with the pandemic. “Parenting and life skills centered on self-care, talking to children about COVID-19, and letting families know about resources and facts about the pandemic,” Barker said. “Resiliency was the focus; we really wanted to keep parents strong.”

The Lumpkin Family Advocacy Program usually services about 60 families at a time, with an advocate located in each of the three elementary schools, middle school and high school. When schools unexpectedly closed in March because of the pandemic, outreach kicked into high gear. “Advocates talked with families more than ever,” Barker said. “We were having contact with families that had never been on our radar.”

Barker said Family Connection had to redesign many of its programs, from transitioning to virtual platforms to finding creative ways to utilize volunteers and stagger work shifts for social distancing.

Courtney Randolph volunteers with the Backpack Buddies program assembling boxes of food each week to be delivered to children on weekends. During COVID, Randolph recruited classmates from her Leadership Lumpkin class to help unload food from trucks. “I knew Brigette was in desperate need of volunteers,” she said. “We were all so happy to help, and it was amazing to watch Family Connection and volunteers come together.”

Instead of completely canceling resource fairs, which usually attract several hundred people, they were replaced by a 24-hour helpline staffed by trained volunteers who could sign up through an app to respond to calls safely from their homes.

The biggest concern, however, was diminishing food supplies and getting meals to families while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Inventory in the food bank was running low and children who depended on school for breakfast and lunch were now at home.  “We started panicking,” Barker said, explaining that a food order could take up to two weeks to arrive. “We were living on hope and a prayer. We were terrified.”

With pantry and grocery shelves bare, and many volunteers in quarantine, Family Connection had to develop new ways of assisting the families it usually serves as well as those reaching out for the first time.

Closed schools donated milk, vegetables and other perishable items to the food pantry. Restaurants did the same. In turn, Family Connection made sure some of that food went to the Community Helping Place food pantry. “They serve more of the senior population while we serve more families,” Barker said, “We wanted all populations in the community to be cared for.”

Even though restaurant owners were struggling themselves, several thought of innovative ways to keep their doors open while helping the community. Sabrina Walker, owner of Spirits Tavern, joined forces with Family Connection to feed 90 families. “We made par-cooked meals and asked people to place an order on behalf of Family Connection,” Walker said. “Brigette would pick up the meals each day and deliver them to the families.”

Thanks to another local restaurant, Family Connection became a drive-through pizzeria, with 40 families riding home with a hot pie for dinner. “While it helped our families, it was a huge blessing to our local restaurants as well,” Barker said. “I had owners tell me, ‘You have no idea how much this is helping our business.’ “

Barker also began ordering food through local restaurant suppliers as inventory was high because restaurants were ordering less. “That was a great partnership,” she said, “and it allowed us to fill in the gap to get food items quicker than we were getting from the food bank.” Barker was able to pay for additional food and restaurant gift cards for families thanks to a $5,000 emergency COVID grant from Jackson Electric Membership Corporation’s Operation Round Up.

Family Connection also linked families with others in the community to fill emergency needs, such as a wheelchair ramp for one young boy to storm-related home repairs.

When Randolph reflects about volunteering during this unprecedented time, she turns to a quote from Mr. Rogers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”

In Lumpkin, you didn’t have to look far.

“Serving the community not only taught me how to look for these helpers, but to take action and BE one of the helpers,” Randolph said. “It was incredible to be able to see that as a team we can make a difference in the community.”


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.