Athens County is home to approximately 65,000 Ohioans in the southeastern part of its state. Last year, the county applied for coaching assistance with the Rural Impact County Challenge (RICC). Recognizing the central role that local officials play in supporting innovative policy changes, NACo helped launch RICC, a national initiative to help recognize and support counties’ efforts to reduce the number of rural children and families living in poverty. NACo offers coaching to counties as a part of its work with the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Local officials from Athens County cite an early-childhood collaborative group of service and primary care providers in the county as the initial motivator to apply for RICC coaching. The collaborative hoped to build upon its achieved successes and, in turn, approached Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel to explore new collaborative opportunities. Commissioner Chmiel had guided the Athens City County Health Department’s work with a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation coach for much of the previous year. Knowing NACo offered the Rural Impact County Challenge, Commissioner Chmiel encouraged the Athens County collaborative to apply for RICC and leverage the offered coaching opportunity to build upon existing efforts to reduce early childhood poverty in the county.
RICC coaching sessions highlighted improvements that could be made to communication between Athens County agencies to streamline and maximize resources dedicated to children and families. RICC coaching also encouraged Athens County to establish early childhood education transition plans from birth to school and then guided the start of those efforts. The RICC coach demonstrated how Athens county could maintain a focus on lowering the number of children born to poverty across numerous and varied county projects, even in projects seemingly unrelated to issues of poverty.
Athens County officials note that their RICC coach guided development of a new inter-departmental focus of tackling early childhood poverty. This focus included a new countywide goal to expand the standard role of schools beyond incubators of education to gateways impacting early childhood health, education, and poverty improvement outcomes. The RICC coach split participating county officials into three action committees focused on improving existing community resources, schools as gateways to early childhood improvement, and forming a county inter-agency collaborative group.
The community resources committee highlighted the goal to increase the use and efficiency of the online and phone resource "Athens County 211.” The schools as gateways committee convened members from each of the county’s five school districts to collaborate on new approaches to improving childhood poverty, and the county inter-agency committee initiated a review of how county agencies and service providers currently share information, resources, and ideas with the goal of expanding scope and efficacy.
Athens County officials participating in the RICC coach process noted “it was initially a little difficult to get rowing together in the same direction. It was also challenging for all of the participants to find the time to dedicate to implementing ideas and making effective change.”
Despite these challenges, the county participants in RICC coaching cited a “continually growing list of county collaborators.” Additionally, RICC participants noted they “have realized a community asset, Athens County 211, as an already available but underutilized resource” and work to further leverage this strength into other county efforts. County officials underscore RICC coaching as the catalyst to improving their work with previous coaching groups to develop schools as health hubs.
RICC coaching has “developed leadership skills and techniques within the participating group” according to one county official. Another Athens County RICC participant hoped to realize the long-term goal of implementing early childhood education transition plans for kids in all five school districts. He believed “RICC will help lead us to successful long term outcomes such as less children born into poverty in Athens County.”
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