The Rice County Growing Up Healthy initiative was organized in 2006 with the intention of engaging in a 10 month long planning process to better understand the needs of low-income families in Rice County. Prior to coming together for the Growing Up Healthy planning process, each of the individual partner agencies was already actively engaged in improving the lives of families – some in the health sector, some in early childhood development, some in community connections, and some in basic social services including safe and affordable housing. The planning process allowed these active agencies and organizations to identify the needs of low-income families through a grassroots process and to engage in a new level of partnership benefiting the entire community.
In our planning process we were able to access information about the needs of low-income families from the families themselves. Our goal is to put that information to use within the county to improve the health and quality of life for all families, both by sharing the information with as many entities as possible so the needs are addressed, and by using the information to modify our individual and collaborative practices to better meet the needs of local families.
A detailed analysis of the qualitative information from our dialogue series led us to conclude that the issue in Rice County is not so much a lack of programs, services or resources, but rather a disconnect between the people who need to access existing services and the people, agencies and systems that provide them.
Additionally, the repeated requests for advocacy and relationship building seem to indicate that families are not just feeling disconnected from the system, but from each other and from the community at large. There is a body of research that supports the idea that community connectedness (also referred to as social connections, social ties, and social capital) can improve health outcomes on many levels. It has been linked to lower levels of child abuse, maltreatment and neglect (Horton, 2003), improved disease resistance, longer life, and improved health outcomes following stressful events (Berkman, presentation to the NIH, 1997). Therefore, it is our contention that if vulnerable Rice County families are better informed and connected (to each other, to existing services, to their neighborhoods, to the community as a whole), and if the community is engaged with these families in new and different ways, the result will be more positive health outcomes for families.