Teamwork and Perseverance

 Building a Better Future for the Most Vulnerable County Residents

Groundbreaking ceremony for the San Augustine County Children's Social Services Center

​The future of San Augustine’s at-risk youth is looking much brighter as the community comes together to create the San Augustine County Children’s Social Services Center. The Center is the result of multiple agencies, universities, foundations and residents working together to solve a series of issues affecting the county.

Soon after taking office in 2008, San Augustine County Judge Samye Johnson realized her community had a deep hole that needed to be filled. She had not been completely aware of the dire situation many in her county faced in until she began meeting with residents. She discovered that there was a problem in her community — addiction and abuse, coupled with deep poverty, were taking a toll on a large portion of the population. “When I took office, people would call in desperate need, but I had no background in this. We have deep-seated poverty in the county, but I had no real concept of the depths,” said Johnson.

Breaking the cycle, she thought, was the key. But there were limited social services and resources in place to help. While neighboring counties did have some services available, residents often did not have adequate transportation to get to them. Johnson decided to act.

Assessing the Needs

She believed they could build a service center that would act as a one-stop-shop for the entire community. To provide the help, they needed to know exactly what the community needed. So, in 2010 she contacted Dr. Emmerentie Oliphant, professor at Sam F. Austin University (SFAU) School of Social Work in nearby Nachogdoches. Together, with Oliphant’s team of undergraduate and graduate students, they set about getting community feedback and buy-in. They held a community meeting, which was attended by nearly 400 people — agency leaders and residents — to discuss the needs of the county.

That feedback helped Oliphant’s team create a needs assessment. to develop a deeper understanding of social problems, strengths and challenges in the county. They also created a participatory action model that enabled county residents to participate in the planning and implementation and of the project. “Not a lot of communities use participatory action models. The communities know themselves; we can’t make assumptions about them; they need to tell us,” said Oliphant. “There was always community engagement, so they had involvement and buy-in.”

Earning Trust

But to get buy-in, you need trust. And trust can be hard earned. When people are dealing with domestic or sexual abuse, drug and alchohol addiction or have had problems with the law, they can be fearful of government. They may even think talking to someone from the government is risky.

Next Step Ministries has played a key role in building community trust as part of its mission, which also includes bringing high school volunteers to help build and repair houses. “We want to be the bridge between the community, the local church and the government. We want to be bridge builders and community builders,” said Mission Director Nick Cocalis.

Next Step has been in San Augustine each summer for the last three years helping and will have a space in the new Center.

With the community trust, Oliphant and her team could more effectively survey the community with a questionnaire on perceptions related to social service needs, social problems and community challenges and strengths. The results showed many positives, such as a strong sense of community, active residents, a volunteer network and leaders who care about the community. However, there were a number of social problems including substance abuse, unemployment and problems related to poverty. Based on the assessment, it was obvious there was a need for establishing social services in the county.

Finding the Money

The assessment reinforced Johnson’s belief that a one-stop-shop was what they needed. That meant coming up with funds to build it.  “I went up against a lot of brick walls for two years. Finally, we were able to get a community block grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) for the first wing of our building. This grant had never been given to a project like this. We pleaded to just be able to qualify. They voted and changed the guidleines and we got it for $275,000. That would be just for the building — not for all the things that it needed to house,” said Johnson.

Armed with the data reinforcing the need from the assessment, they went to the Temple Foundation and were awarded a matching $275,000 grant to pay for the services.

Services and Programs

The social services needs will be managed by STAR, Court Appointed Special Advocate of Deep East Texas (CASA), Child Advocacy Center and Child Protective Services (CPS). Each agency will have space at the Center.

In addition to the social services to be provided, they saw a need for enrichment programs for both children and adults. These programs are offered by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and include personal health and development classes, as well as a number of Master Gardener classes. Stephen F. Austin School of Social Work will bring outreach classes and training programs designed to address the needs of the county. Next Step Ministry will also have space at the center to support their San Augustine County housing rehab and Community Development programs.

 

As part of the enrichment offerings, AgriLife Extension will provide Masters Gardener programs for adults and 4-H programs for at-risk youth. But they didn’t wait for the Center to be built to get started. They began their 4-H programs last year and doubled the number of children involved. Johnson said she expected that number to double again this year. Additionally, AgriLife Extension is providing a full-time family consumer scientist for the Center. “She’s great! She will focus on nutrition and health education programs, as well as parenting classes and financial management,” said Dr. Jeff Ripley, associate director of county operations at AgriLife Extension.
 
Power in Partnerships

 

color-rendering.pngThe judge hopes the holistic approach helps end the cycle of addiction and abuse by educating adults and intervening with children early on. All the different services require the collaboration of many different people. Judge Johnson made sure to engage leaders in their respective fields and form an extremely strong coalition. Each partner worked for the betterment of San Augustine County.

The partnership between the different groups and agencies is impressive. “Honestly it’s a miracle. It did all work,” said Johnson. This partnership would not have been as successful as it has been if not for the tenacity of Judge Johnson who recognized not only that there is a need, but with the support of many there is a way. “The judge has so much on her plate. It’s amazing she’s been able to do this,” said Oliphant.

With all the players in place — each developing targeted programs in their specific area of expertise — it was time to build the future home for them. On Jan. 25, after years of planning, a groundbreaking ceremony was held to kick off the building of the more than 5,000-square- foot center on the same property as the San Augustine County Sheriff’s office. According to Johnson, the building was designed to “look like grandma’s house.” She wanted a space that would help put children at ease, not add to their stress with a sterile, office building. “I can’t believe it’s going to be so beautiful AND on budget,” said Johnson. Additionally, all the landscaping will be done by A&M’s Master Gardeners, including a children’s vegetable garden.

Funding for the $550,000 building came from two sources, a $275,000 Community Development Block Grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture with support from the Deep East Texas Council and a matching grant from the Temple Foundation grant.

Based on the successful collaboration in San Augustine, a similar program has begun in Luftkin. “The Temple Foundation is funding us to do the same thing in Luftkin,” said Oliphant. “We’re doing the needs assessment now and the community is very involved. It’s exciting!”

Replicating the Success

Counties interested in replicating a similar program should start by identifying the resources in the county — especially colleges or universities. “The regional universities love those projects for their graduate students,” noted Ripley. But he also adds, “They need a county judge like Judge Johnson,” to bring all the parties together and stick with it through to the end.

The San Augustine County Children’s Center is scheduled to open early this summer. It will also serve adjacent counties. This is also expected to be the first phase or a continued effort to expand social services for the county. “It’s always been my goal to help small counties find a way to move forward,” said Johnson. “Our funds get cut all the time. And we get left at the gate. Our people are as important as those from larger counties.”

 
 

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