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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Pinellas service groups unite to reach local families in need

— Pinellas County has a plethora of community service organizations, but they have long struggled to work together to reach their full potential.

Community leaders are hopeful that will change after a meeting Wednesday with more than 90 representatives of nonprofits, churches, businesses and volunteer groups.

Every five years, the Salvation Army brings together the groups to discuss ways to meet the needs of their communities. The last meeting led to the creation of the Community Dental Clinic to provide affordable dental care for the uninsured. This meeting, at St. Petersburg College’s Collaboration Lab, was meant to tackle a bigger problem plaguing the service organizations — collaboration and communication.

“The goal was to get all of our stakeholders together in one room to really dream big about what we could accomplish together by the year 2020,” said Capt. Zach Bell, commanding officer for the Salvation Army in Upper Pinellas County.

The county has used services such as the 211 Pinellas resource referral line to compile information about organizations available to those in need, but the numbers and resources have become outdated. The 211 Pinellas website has information on more than 1,000 local agencies, and many aren’t aware of how their missions overlap and complement one another, said Rhonda Abbott with the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board.

“So many people in this room are talking about the services they offer and many of us have never heard of them before, and we’re in the business,” said Neal Dwyer of the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network. “We need to be more connected to really impact this community.”

One of the biggest challenges for those in need is accessing the broad number of resources available, Bell said. The service organizations would like more buses in low-income neighborhoods and a system to either transport clients from one service to another or a way to house multiple services in one location. There also needs to be a follow-up system with clients to ensure they are plugged in to a long-term plan to become self-sufficient.

“We need to address the whole person, the whole family, and we need to do the hard work for them instead of giving them a bunch of phone numbers to follow up with,” said Allison Sapiega of the Community Dental Clinic.

One solution could be to use schools for preventative health care services, from mental health to vision and dental, said Caitlin Higgins-Joy of Religious Community Services. The school district has worked with local groups to open inexpensive clinics in schools such as Northeast High School after hours, and that model could be expanded.

A bigger emphasis needs to be on partnerships with area schools to provide mentors, career training and internships for students, and even short-term job training to parents who need more income, said Jane Jackson of the Pinellas County Public Defender’s office.

With only 20 to 25 percent of the population moving on to college, the Pinellas school district has placed more emphasis on offering career training opportunities for every school and more job-tailored courses for elementary students.

The businesses and community organizations agreed Wednesday they could do more to help schools make sure training moves students into Pinellas-based jobs. Other simple measures could be getting students into the Pinellas Education Foundation’s Enterprise Village earlier for financial education, and bringing more “life-skills lessons” into classrooms through community partners, said Bruce Livingston of the Clearwater Housing Authority.

“If we don’t get the entire family engaged early on it becomes more and more difficult,” Livingston said.

The organizations have been challenged to analyze their strengths and how they match up with other groups in the community. The Salvation Army will follow up to make sure the organizations form a cohesive network, Bell said.

“This is just the launching point,” Bell said. “Now we can’t just sit back, we all have a responsibility to act.”

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