Coastal Courier, serving Liberty County: As facilitators tried to close the countywide planning workshop Friday on St. Simons Island, Liberty County officials let it be known they weren’t quite finished hashing out issues.
Human services issues, like local poverty, homelessness and health care for the elderly, brought several officials to their feet, hands in the air, waiting for a turn to chime in.
And it’s no wonder such topics drew countless comments and questions from workshop attendees as 17 percent of their constituents are living under the poverty line and more than half of the county’s school-aged children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Elected and non-elected leaders wrapped up their stay at the Sea Palms resort by creating course of actions to improve human services, economic development, transportation and water for residents.
In order to come up with a solution, however, everyone needs to completely understand the problem, according to Kathy Love, president of Savannah Technical College’s Liberty campus.
Love pushed for a local poverty simulation exercise, similar to Savannah’s Step Up program.
“Most of us have never lived in that situation,” Love said. “The poverty simulation will show where the cracks are in your system.”
Leaders agreed assitance often isn’t utilized because eligible recipients aren’t aware it’s available.
Rather than taking advantage of services, commissioner Connie Thrift said the needy, particularly the homeless, often “go from church to church to church.”
“And they really knock on the church door and that really needs to be under control,” Thrift said.
Using Meals on Wheels as an example, Elise Stafford with Liberty Regional Medical Center said there are new state-funded programs to help keep the elderly from having to stay in the hospital or a care facility.
“If a person has to go through several different phases of care, Medicaid dollars will follow them,” Stafford said.
“[That’s an] Example of taking service to the individual, which is the ideal way to provide it,” said Gail Evans, who sits on Flemington city council.
She agreed with Stafford there often are not enough beds and caregivers to go around and the baby boomer population will make it a bigger issue in a few years.
“Thank goodness they wised up and realized it’s a lot less expensive providing it this way,” Evans said of the state.
Many community leaders say they face obstacles in spreading the word and making sure people who need help know it’s out there.
“One of the biggest challenges is that turnover every year by the soldiers,” said Paul Andreshak, director of the Friends of Liberty.
But that’s no excuse, according to former mayor Tom Ratcliffe, foundations should in place “and then start tweaking it where it needs to be tweaked.”
“If you want to know where the gaps are, then go out there and test the agencies and see what kind of response you get,” Ratcliffe said, mentioning a secret shopper concept.
In addition, popular information mediums such as the Internet aren’t always the best way to reach underprivileged groups.
Former Hinesville mayor Tom Ratcliffe suggested partnering with the Board of Education and Comcast to put students on TV to talk about local services.
“Everybody will watch their own child on TV,” Ratcliffe said.
“What I’m afraid of is, it’s going to be separate endeavors and it doesn’t need to be,” said Rene Harwell, marketing director for Liberty Regional Medical Center.
“We all have pieces of the project, we just have to put together,” agreed Thrift.
But Sonny Timmerman, director of the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission, was optimistic.
“Maybe you won’t recognize our community in six months,” Timmerman said. “We want to bring a central point of information together so we are all reading in the same hymn book, preferably on the same song.”