To see a story of another community resource center launched by a Florida Conference church in Jacksonville, click here.
CHIEFLAND — A one-stop resource center in Levy, Gilchrist and Dixie counties is opening its doors to needy families who for years have had to travel long distances and to multiple locations to receive assistance.
The Tri-County Community Resource Center will hold a grand opening Thursday, March 19. But three nonprofit organizations share space and offer services in the former Chiefland City Hall, which the city donated for use rent-free. Partnership for Strong Families, a Gainesville-based child welfare organization that serves 13 counties, manages the center.
CDS Family & Behavioral Health Services (formerly the Corner Drug Store) and the University of Florida Child Protection Team also offer services. Future options include new construction on land near the city's Tommy Usher Community Center.
"It is needed in this community," says Diana Child, office administrator at First UMC, Chiefland. Child helped spearhead and organize a nonprofit coalition, Tri-County Resources Inc., in support of the resource center. She now serves as chairwoman. "It's going to change lives, in my opinion."
As many as 30 programs and services are expected to be available at the center, including counseling, job searches, health screenings and after-school tutoring.
Last year, First UMC was nominated as a "Champion of Hope" at the annual conference of the Florida Faith-based and Community-based Advisory Council, held in Orlando. The group is a formal advisory council to the governor and Legislature. Its goal is to promote volunteer faith-based and community-based organizations.
"We were very appreciative of what they are doing," says Zackary Gibson, who serves in the governor’s office as chief child advocate and director of adoption and child protection. "It comes down to relationships."
First UMC and Tri-County Resources have brought together the kind of volunteer coalition that can put families on a path to self-sufficiency, Gibson says.
“It’s a combination of the sacred and the secular,” says Terry Wines, pastor of First UMC. “It’s the Kingdom. He (God) has been leading every part of this.”
The tri-county area lacks the basics in medical and dental care, and families on average earn about $26,000 a year, he says. Before the new center, the nearest help for some services was 40 miles away in Gainesville. The SWAG Family Resource Center, supported by the Partnership for Strong Families, served as a model for the Tri-County center.
Child and Wines saw community challenges up close, as about 100 area residents came to the church each month seeking help with rent, utilities and food. A Catholic church was known to see up to 250 people a month. The two churches together have been giving about $25,000 a year in assistance.
But there was a lack of local resources available to low-income families who had limited access to transportation and struggled to make ends meet during unemployment or with low-wage jobs. No one was coordinating the efforts of churches and nonprofits trying to lend a hand.
"It was very frustrating," Wines says.
Child and Wines began reaching out to the other almost 30 churches in Chiefland with the goal of forming a coalition to pool resources and coordinate activities.
“That was to get us putting names to faces,” Wines says.
Communication has improved since the coalition formed, Child says, adding, “Now they are already starting to go to each other’s functions.”
Chiefland seemed to be the most central location for the resource center.
“We had a Walmart, so we are action central,” Wines says.
Monthly group meetings for Tri-County Resources are held at First UMC or at Haven Hospice.
“The only question city officials had was ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?’” Child says. “The city is invested in this. It wasn’t a question of should we open but when.”
The center has computers, a children's play and reading area, a meeting room and tutoring area. Now child protection workers can interview children at a location closer to where they live.
But there is also a goal of making the center a true community-based destination with fun activities, including jewelry-making and crafts.
“We want people to know that this is the kind of place anybody would want to use, not just because you are down and out or in crisis," Child says.
The donated building underwent a few renovations, including new carpet, paint and an upgraded bathroom to meet federal disability standards.
The center is meant to help people like the woman who came to First UMC for financial aid, Child says.
“She started breaking down and crying, and I knew something else was going on,” she says.
The woman told Child she had only $25 to live on after paying child support to her mother, who had custody of her daughter. Child referred her to legal services. A month later, the woman returned and told Child she had gotten custody of her daughter.
“I didn’t even know I could do that,” she told Child.
Child also remembers a man with a disabling leg injury who was referred to vocational rehabilitation for job training.
“He got a better job that suited his disability,” Child says.
The center is uniting people in a way that hasn't happened before, Wines says.
"The bottom line is to give people some more hope."
— Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.