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Community Connections project aims to build relationships to solve community needs

HUNTSVILLE — Madison County organizations are banding together to meet the community’s needs thanks to the Community Connections project. Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong expressed their excitement over the project at the first-ever meeting Jan. 10 at the Downtown Huntsville Library.

A grant from the Women’s Philanthropy Society of the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville, announced in August 2018, made the project possible. Spearheaded by Expect Little Miracles (ELM), the Community Connections Network will be meeting regularly so organizations in the community can get to know each other and build relationships through face-to-face collaboration that will allow them to identify and meet the needs of citizens.

“This is exciting because we’re all here to work together to better our community,” said Carol Cheesman, of ELM, who worked to organize the meeting. She said the networking group is open to all types of organizations, from faith-based to corporate-based and for-profit to non-profit. The group will also be working with county and community officials to make Huntsville and Madison County a better place for all residents.

Cheesman said she decided to bring the project to Huntsville after seeing its success when she served in Georgia as part of the Community Council of Gwinnett County.

“There, I saw what collaboration looks like, and I wanted to bring that and help us see that here in Huntsville,” she said.

During her time on the council, Cheesman saw several examples of this project’s success. She recalled one specific instance of a local church who came to their meeting and said they were running out of items in their food pantry. Someone else happened to know of a local Boy Scout troop in need of a service project, so they decided to connect the two and have the scouts hold a food drive for the church. “The problem was solved that day,” Cheesman added.

A steering committee consisting of members from all types of organizations will oversee all of Huntsville’s Community Connections Network meetings, according to Cheesman.

The network will use Charity Tracker as a collaboration tool. Charity Tracker is an online case management tool that can act as a bulletin for specific individual and community needs. This may serve to help a working homeless person find a coat to stay warm at their job, or even to help someone find transportation to another city.

“From the city council perspective, I see in our community the tremendous needs we have, and there are so many needs that one agency can’t meet all those needs alone,” said Huntsville City Council District 3 Councilwoman Jennie Robinson, who also works with ELM. “The city can’t meet all of those needs alone. It’s going to take everybody working together.”

Robinson said the City of Huntsville began this process in October 2018, and while the meetings will serve as a vital point of interaction monthly, Charity Tracker will serve as a way for the network to continue connecting daily.

“We think that this is a process that will grow exponentially as agencies start learning about it and start using it,” Robinson added.

The project’s grant will also fully fund an “unlimited number” of user licenses to Charity Tracker, according to Robinson.

“We couldn’t put Charity Tracker together 10 years ago when they came, and I’m so proud that ELM has taken up that flag and moved it forward, and now we have something that is a tool to be able to do exactly what we’re talking about—have community collaboration to make our community a better place,” Battle said.

David Bier, of Anglin Reichmann Armstrong, P.C., said the marriage of technology with the people, as well as the face-to-face communication and collaboration in the meetings, are part of what makes the Community Connections Network effective. Each meeting will consist of presentations and short introductions as a way to achieve this.

“What we want to do is build these relationships,” Bier explained. “We take the technology of Charity Tracker and then take the relationships that we form from these meetings. That’s how we really start being able to effect change in our community.”

Robinson expressed similar sentiments, noting the trust that this face-to-face interaction builds. This allows organizations to have confidence in any referrals they may have to make. From there, the work can flourish.

“We can figure out what we’re doing and figure out what space we would best use our resources in and maybe even leverage our resources to meet those community needs,” Robinson said.

In his remarks, Battle told of a time several years ago when he and his wife decided to help organize a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. They received help from church members to prepare the food and sent for a bus to bring the homeless to the dinner. Though they managed to pull off what they had in mind, they discovered that the homeless had already been to a few other Thanksgiving meals earlier in the day. Battle admitted that they had not stopped to think about whether the resources they were providing were actually needed at the time.

“If we had put those same resources and time into something else, could we have done better for the community, and could we have spread out the resources that we have in this community?” he wondered. “… Each one of y’all is expressing a need for the community, and this really psychs me that we can get together and collaborate and make sure that we connect together.”

Strong also shared his excitement at the idea of building collaboration across the county.

“This is the most exciting thing I’ve been to in I can’t even tell you when because I know we’re helping so many people at different levels,” he said.

Strong said he was reminded of the collaboration he saw and participated in after tornadoes hit Madison County April 27, 2011.

“Many of you were right there with me when we were struck by the worst natural disaster in the history of the state of Alabama,” he told the meeting’s attendees. “Tornadoes ripped through Madison County—350 homes totally destroyed, thousands with major damage—and when you look at it, this community came together, and this group was part of the big leadership.”

Strong recognized many valuable resources in the area, including several people and organizations with the knowledge and expertise to solve the issues at hand, such as delivering fuel, restoring power and repairing homes.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “It was one of the biggest organizations coming together.”

Strong also encouraged attendees to continue serving and working together, noting that the impact can be greater than it seems at the time.

“Don’t limit yourself,” he said.

The Community Connections Network will meet on the second Thursday of each month at 9 a.m. at the Downtown Huntsville Library auditorium. The library is located at 915 Monroe St. SW.

The Feb. 14 meeting will feature an in-depth presentation from Dana Wolfe, director of adult education at Calhoun Community College, focusing on the impact of education on economic development. At the March 14 meeting, Cathy Easley from United Way of Charleston, South Carolina, will discuss their Safety Net Assistance Network and how using Charity Tracker helps their 375 members.

For more information on the Community Connections project, visit www.expectlittlemiracleshsv.org/community-connections.

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