Helpers in Lumpkin County Found Everywhere During the PandemicPrint This Post
by Diana St. Lifer
Perhaps the African proverb “It takes a village” takes on even more meaning when the village is struggling amid a public health crisis. In Lumpkin County, business owners, volunteers, and school officials found ways to help the community while facing their own challenges related to COVID-19.
“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 toys into the hands of children, and Lumpkin County Family Connection would be our best resource for helping with this project.”
The Clowers understand the positive impact play can have during difficult times. “Toys help children with cognitive, physical, communicative, social and emotional, and sensory development,” said John. “All these skills help children grow into healthy adults. During the quarantine, families were struggling financially, hurting emotionally, and worrying about their children academically.”
The couple reached out to Brigette Barker, Lumpkin County Family Connection executive director, and together they coordinated a donation program that 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,” John said.
For the past three years, Lumpkin County Family Connection has been a member, along with Dade and Floyd counties, of Georgia Family Connection’s Family Support Cohort, which focuses on child abuse and neglect prevention. In Lumpkin County, 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. According to the latest KIDS COUNT data, Lumpkin’s rate per 1,000 was 9.8 compared to the state’s 4.2 in 2018.
The county began its cohort work by developing strategies to ensure that families’ basic needs are met and focusing on poverty education and training. “We aim to take a strength-based approach and increase protective factors,” said Barker. “Each year we build on the work and see where it needs to go.”
When the pandemic hit, the work became even more crucial. “Resiliency has been the focus,” said Barker. “We really want to keep parents strong.” Parenting and life skills center on self-care, talking to children about COVID-19, and sharing resources and information with families.
The Lumpkin Family Advocacy Program usually services about 60 families at a time. When schools closed in March, outreach kicked into high gear. “Advocates talked with families more than ever,” Barker said. “We had contact with families that had never been on our radar.”
The Collaborative redesigned many programs by transitioning to virtual platforms, finding creative ways to utilize volunteers, and staggering shifts to ensure social distancing.
Courtney Randolph volunteers with the Backpack Buddies program, assembling boxes of food that are delivered to children on weekends. She recruited classmates from her Leadership Lumpkin class to help. “I knew Brigette was in desperate need of volunteers,” said Randolph. “We were all so happy to help, and it was amazing to watch Family Connection and volunteers come together.”
Resource fairs, which usually attract several hundred people, were replaced by a 24-hour helpline staffed by trained volunteers who signed up through an app to respond to calls from home.
The biggest hurdle this spring for the Collaborative was getting meals to families while adhering to social distancing guidelines as food bank inventory diminished—and children who depended on school meals were now at home. “We started panicking,” Barker said. “We were living on hope and a prayer. We were terrified.”
The Collaborative found new ways to assist families it usually serves while also reaching out to others for the first time. Restaurants and closed schools donated milk, vegetables, and perishable items to the food pantry. Lumpkin County 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,” said Barker. “We wanted all populations in the community to be cared for.”
Several restaurant owners found ways to keep their doors open while helping the community. Sabrina Walker, owner of Spirits Tavern, joined forces with the Collaborative 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 families.”
Another local restaurant temporarily turned the Collaborative into a drive-through pizzeria, with 40 families picking up a hot pie for dinner. “While it helped our families, it was also a huge blessing to our local restaurants,” Barker said. “Many owners told me, ‘You have no idea how much this is helping our business.’”
Barker ordered food through local restaurant suppliers with surplus inventory. “That great partnership allowed us to fill the gap to get food items quicker than we were getting from the food bank,” she said. Barker distributed additional food and restaurant gift cards to families thanks to a $5,000 emergency COVID-19 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 facilitating storm-related home repairs and making sure one young boy had a wheelchair ramp.
When Randolph reflected upon volunteering with the Collaborative during this unprecedented time, she turned 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.’ ”
In Lumpkin, you don’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.”
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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.