Vital Signs revealed the challenges; the County Community Foundation is working to find solutions
A 2013 report commissioned by the County Community Foundation(CCF) painted a stark picture of Prince Edward County. The Vital Signs report pointed to the community’s unique character and strengths, but also brought its social challenges into sharp focus. Conjecture, assumptions and speculation were replaced by hard data. The picture it painted was that life, for some in Prince Edward County, is a daily struggle.
The chief question in the days and months following its release and absorption by the community’s consciousness was what if anything, would come of it? Would it become an interesting artifact, a source of trivia or would it spur action?
The good news is that four years later, Vital Signs continues to inspire a wide variety of initiatives— including expanded transit opening up education and job opportunities. It includes a variety of community gardens projects and the Food to Share program that seeks to process and package excess vegetable and produce from the annual harvest. These and other initiatives grew out of a consciousness of the gaps in our community. That is what Vital Signs did—and continues to do.
The ambition is far greater. But to do bigger things, the organization had some important structural work to do—while simultaneously engaging more than 40 community agencies without certain prospects of success.
Big ambitions require big funders. These organizations are shrewd with their donated capital. They demand rigour, a track record and a plan with a good chance of improving the lot of the folks targeted by their support.
Big ambitions also require strong collaborative links with individuals, organizations, agencies and local government.
So during the past four years, CCF has been brick-by-brick building the foundation.
This week, the CCF-led Vital Signs Working Group initiatives in Learning and Transportation announced the receipt of grants that will enable these groups to make a meaningful impact on two issues identified by the report.
The Vital Signs report revealed gaps in education in the County—specifically in early years performance relative to the province, as well as adult education. Subsequent school board report showed high school graduation rates also lagged behind the provincial average and even some peer schools in the region. The implications spell trouble across the social spectrum.
The Learning Working Group conducted a survey that identified five ways to tackle the issue: establishing family support networks, direct education support, improving overall well-being, empowerment and broadening career and training options aimed at a changing marketplace.
A central theme running through these approaches was the need to empower youth to become part of the solution. With initial seed funding from the Laidlaw Foundation, the learning working group launched the Youth Collective Impact (YCI) project, putting young people to work with local agencies to understand the gaps and define solutions from the inside. It is a tested and proven method to discover workable solutions.
“The vision is to create a community culture that embraces learning and personal development so that everyone has the opportunity reach their potential,” said Brian Beiles, treasurer and Vital Signs Action Plan leader for the CCF. “Once these programs are in place by the middle of this year—we could be eligible for execution funding—up to $150,000 per year—to put these plans into action.”
Action will attract additional funding says Beiles. His group is currently seeking Trillium Foundation dollars to support the work.
But how will the Foundation and its donors know whether it works? How will success be measured?
The Foundation has partnered with the Student Commission of Canada who do precisely this work. One important metric in the sights of every participating partner is improving high school graduation rates to parity with that of the province.
“It is a tangible measure of success,” said Beiles. “But this is a 10-year project. Change of this kind takes time.”
Yet he is encouraged by, and grateful for the support and continuing participation of the various agencies—many of whom are already managing with strained resources—for staying with the Learning Working Group initiative through four lean years without funding.
“These organizations have hung in over the four years based largely on a leap of faith,” said Beiles. “This has been a huge thing.”
Filling the gaps in transportation may be an easier nut to crack and the results certainly easier to measure, though the scale of moving folks around in an expansive rural community remain daunting. Many of the solutions will likely not involve new conventional bus routes, but rather extending current services including Quinte Access and Deseronto Transit to fill in some blanks. There are other notions as well, including ridesharing—connecting drivers and passengers—in a more formal way than is done currently.
Much of it is about communication—bringing the gaps to the surface. From awareness, nontraditional solutions may arise.
Beiles points to the Good Food Box service provided throughout the Quinte Region and into Prince Edward County.
“They offered this wonderful service, but were struggling to figure out how to reliably deliver it from the depot to drop-off points in the County,” explained Beilas. “In conversation with Community Living, they told us they had a vehicle going back and forth to Belleville every day.”
Beiles suggests significant improvements can come from using existing transportation assets and networks better. This is all about communication and awareness.
To help understand the gaps and identify possible connections, the Transportation Working Group has secured $50,000 in funding from the Foundation, the Municipality of Prince Edward and United Way Quinte, to fund a study that will define potential solutions.
The investigation will include a review of how transportation is being facilitated in other rural communities—what is working and what isn’t.
“This will produce some short-term results,” said Beiles, “by enabling leveraging non-traditional assets. There is room to serve more on existing services simply by raising awareness that they exist.
“We are looking for solutions that are affordable and sustainable,” said Beiles. “Again, collaboration is key.”
He adds that while efforts aimed at enhancing regional transit links are much needed, Beiles says this community has unique challenges in getting around the County accessing shops, doctor’s appointments and the hospital.
“It is critical to determine what is needed in this rural environment specific to Prince Edward County,” said Beiles. “It is important that the search for solutions happens both at the regional level but at the County level to ensure that it works for residents of this community.”
He adds that the study results will open the door to new funding opportunities.
CCF chair Joan Pennefather says these funding announcements demonstrate the important role the Vital Signs report played in identifying the issues, focusing efforts and raising funds to address them.
“It’s about having an impact,” said Pennefather.