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A Wealth of Accomplishments

by Lynda McDaniel

Richard Rhone speaks very fast. He has to, given how much there is to be said and done each day as director of the Family Resource Center (FRC) in Hale County, Alabama. He also speaks with great enthusiasm, which comes, in part, from the remarkable results he's seen since the center opened four years ago. Expanded health care, improved housing, empowered students, reduced teen pregnancy, and increased job development head the list of the FRC's accomplishments.

"It's the people in Hale County who are making the difference," Rhone adds, eager to share the credit. "Just about everything we do is some kind of collaboration. Even the local bureaucracy—rather than throwing out red tape, they roll out the red carpet."

A program of the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization, the FRC employs 12 full-time staff, plus volunteers and contract workers, who have developed public and private partnerships with groups such as the Department of Human Resources, the West Alabama Planning and Development Council, West Alabama Health Services, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the West Alabama Mental Health Center, and the Hale County public school system. This strong spirit of collaboration actually began in 1995, when approximately 200 people came together to explore community concerns. After months of strategic planning and needs assessment, they applied for a federal Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community grant. They didn't get it.

"I think that aggravated the community in a good way," Rhone adds. "They said 'Okay, we'll do it ourselves. We've identified these needs, now we'll find ways to fund them.' "

Through a creative mix of local, state, federal, and private funds, the center built an impressive network of services to assist families and nurture children. The school system, for example, supports Jump Start, an early-learning program that prepares three- and four-year-olds for elementary school. A drug prevention program operates in conjunction with the local housing authority. And three years ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the FRC a grant that funds the Rural Health Outreach Program, a partnership with the Alabama Department of Human Resources, the local school system, and the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Together, a nurse and social worker travel to five areas of the county each week in a custom-fitted, 36-foot medical unit, providing blood-pressure, TB, vision, and hearing screenings; medications; child health examinations; counseling on sexually transmitted diseases; and immunizations required by state law for children to enter kindergarten. Before the mobile unit, children in isolated areas without transportation to a free clinic often spent weeks out of school until they were immunized. Now, school administrators notify the FRC in the summer as to which students need shots; last year, 380 children were immunized and started school on time.

The FRC also offers the county's only general equivalency diploma (GED) classes. They're conducted daily by dedicated teachers who are paid for only half a day, yet work from 9:00A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Results are encouraging, Rhone reports, with a number of GED recipients continuing their education at community colleges.

"I think 'innovative' best describes the people associated with the Family Resource Center," adds Jean Rosene, Appalachian programs director at the West Alabama Planning and Development Council. "They see needs in their community and figure out the best way to meet those needs. They're accomplishing so much because they're enthusiastic, caring, and smart."

Hale BOPP Comets

One of the FRC's newest programs is Hale Builders of Positive Partnerships (Hale BOPP), which works to develop leadership skills in younger residents. Funded with grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and money from the county and the FRC, the program is part of an effort to stop the "brain drain" that occurs when an area's brightest students leave for college, never to return. By exploring the needs and resources of their county and state, which in turn develops stronger networks, these students are better equipped to find solutions and exact changes in their communities.

When they conceived of this leadership program last year, Rhone and Julia Williams, a school support specialist with the FRC and the program's director, decided to recruit outstanding juniors from the county's five public high schools and one private academy. "Twice as many applied as we could accept," Williams recalls. "We were encouraged, though, that so many met the qualifications. We selected 24 students and made sure we had equal representation for gender and race and that each high school in the county was represented."

The students, known as the Hale BOPP Comets, meet once a month, a day away from their regular schoolwork that administrators unanimously approved. They attend leadership sessions that focus on community concerns; staff from the University of Alabama and Auburn University contribute expertise through lectures, presentations, and support.

"I'm already taking what I learn here and showing it to my friends so we can do something in Akron," says Andrea Wilson, editor of her school paper at Akron Community School East. "Then, I want to go to college and major in business management and marketing so I can come back and start my own business, maybe in apartment management."

Keri Strother of Greensboro High School West wants to return as well. "I plan to go to college and come back to teach secondary education here," he says. "There is a lot of opportunity in this program, and it's been good interacting with the people from the different schools."

On a trip to Montgomery, they watched their state government in session and attended a performance at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. In Birmingham, they visited the Museum of Art, the McWane Center (a science museum), and the new Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which awakened their minds to past and present struggles.

"I have a new awareness of African Americans' struggle for civil rights," says Dusty Averette of Greensboro High School West. "It struck me that I can make a difference today by making it easier for exchange students who come to my school to develop their freedom and sense of community."

Back at home, the students are excited by the nationally acclaimed Auburn University Rural Studio in Newbern. The studio, which was co-founded and is directed by Samuel Mockbee, brings architecture students and teachers to the county to create "socially responsible architecture with aesthetics." They have designed and built homes for as little as $2,400 from such innovative and inexpensive materials as hay bales and soil or cement bricks. The "Hay House," for example, offers a modern, efficient home to an elderly couple who have lived on that land for decades; it helped the Rural Studio earn an Architecture magazine award in 1997 for its "commitment to the humane purpose of architecture."

"I'm really interested in helping the community," says Chris Thomas from Southern Academy. "When we went to the 'Hay House,' I realized the economic situation some people are in. It made me feel grateful for what I have and made me want to come back and help the people back home."

The Comets and the Auburn students recently spent a day in the spacious kitchen of the studio's rambling Victorian-era headquarters, working out the design of a community service project—two benches, which they will build in front of the 1907 Hale County courthouse.

The rationale behind the benches is simple—everyone in the county can use them. Agreeing on what they will look like was more difficult. Five teams of Comets, each with its own design, had to decide on one approach to go before the Hale County Commission for approval. They worked together all day, dreaming and drawing and learning from the Auburn students. What started as a quiet group grew more animated with each stroke of the pencil. Once-shy students stood up and made presentations, voiced their opinions in the face of objections, debated merits, and came to a decision. The nascent potential Rhone and Williams had seen early on was beginning to blossom, in promising leaders who could and would make a difference.

Reaching Out to the Community

Rhone talks at length about other successful FRC programs: a mobile classroom, a 34-foot unit outfitted with nine computers, printers, and software, that travels into isolated rural areas; Bright Beginnings, an in-home visitation program for first-time teenage mothers that last year helped 14 out of 15 young mothers remain in school; and Children Cope With Divorce classes, which make life a little easier for everyone involved in this difficult transition. But midway through the list he pauses, again eager to share the credit.

"I am so lucky to have such a wonderful, creative staff," he adds. "Our job developer, for example, has gotten jobs for more than 250 people; she oversees the welfare-to-work training; she's developed a program with a hospital where people can train to be certified nurse's assistants; and she's started a program that teaches computer hardware repair. All that in just three years."

There is one drawback, however, to such an accomplished staff—the natural temptation for the community to think, "The FRC will do it." Success can change the original intent of a program, shifting the emphasis from the collaboration of the entire community to the responsibility of a few employees. Rhone says they are aware of this tendency and are working to revitalize committees that will keep the community involved. After all, there is still much to accomplish, though Rhone remains enthusiastic about the outcome.

"I used to be a high school principal, " he explains, "and all I could do was treat the symptoms. Now we're finding the causes of problems and working to prevent them."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia