End of year reports: The Link feeds, teaches, advocates

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At The Link of Cullman County are, left to right, Reginnia Roat, Amber McLaughlin, Paige Williams, Carrie Woods, Director Julie Hall and Aubrey Moore. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

“We just can’t wait to see the ways that we get to love and serve in this community in 2020.”

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Tribune talked to the staff of The Link of Cullman County about how things went in 2019, and how 2020 is shaping up for the multi-tasking organization working to combat poverty by every means it can find. Director Julie Hall takes pride in her staff and wanted to give them the opportunity to talk about their respective roles and programs. 

She introduced them, saying, “These are the people that make the mission of The Link happen.”

Lead Encourager Paige Williams

As Lead Encourager, Paige Williams wears several hats, coordinating The Gathering Community Meal, Masters Hands Food Bank, Link Community Meetings and Wise Up Money Skills for Teens.

“The role of the lead encourager is to be the first point of contact for neighbors who visit the Link of Cullman County,” said Williams. “The purpose of that initial meeting is to gather information from the neighbor regarding their current situation and work with them to develop a plan- including referrals to internal and external resources-offering encouragement, building a relationship with them and offering hope. 

“Our neighbors visit us for a variety of reasons including homelessness, addiction, past-due utility bills and oftentimes because they do not know where else to turn. This year alone, we have met with 66 homeless and 40 people who are at risk of being homeless. Though we do have showers, a hangout room that is available during office hours, encouragement and job search assistance for our homeless neighbors, often our answer for shelter involves transporting them to a shelter out of town. 

“Transportation for our homeless neighbors is a huge need as well as finding resources for picture IDs, shelter and day labor positions. In total, we had 443 neighbors visit us for encouragement, classes and other services.  

“Our Gathering Community Meal, which began in May of 2017, has grown each year since its beginning. In 2019 we served 970 meals to our community and ended the year with a Christmas community meal which was sponsored by St. John’s Church, that had well over 100 in attendance. The monthly meals take place on the fourth Thursday of each month and are sponsored by churches, community groups, organizations and individuals. The monthly sponsor provides the meal which normally consists of a meat or main course and several sides and a dessert. The sponsor also provides volunteers who prepare plates, greet neighbors, help with setup and clean up and who engage in conversation with our neighbors. 

“Our community meal is unique in that we serve our neighbors restaurant-style, and we are so thankful for Restoring Women’s Outreach who provides volunteers to wait our tables each month. The Gathering Community Meal began with a heart to build relationships and community around our neighbors where relationships are often built: around the dinner table.  

“Masters Hands Food Pantry, previously a ministry of Daystar Church, was turned over to our care in March of 2019 and has since provided 1,278 food boxes to 515 households. Without the support of Daystar Church to get us up and running and the amazing volunteers who show up day in and day out to make sure the food bank runs smoothly and to love on our neighbors, we would not have been able to serve such a large number of families. We are so thankful to each of our weekly volunteers and to our community members who have made monetary or food donations. You are difference makers.  

“The Link Community Meeting was designed to bring together community organizations in an effort to work together to better serve Cullman.  Each month we meet to discuss accomplishments, upcoming events, issues with our organizations or community and we in turn work together to find resolutions and to celebrate each other’s victories. We firmly believe that we can accomplish more together than we ever will apart. 

“Wise Up Money Skills for Teens is a financial literacy program that is taught throughout Cullman County-in the city and county schools-and has been taught at other institutions including homeschool classes, Cullman Christian, and this semester we will be hosting a class at St. Bernard. The program is 12 weeks long and is taught to ninth and 12th graders. Wise Up introduces basic budgeting and bank account skills to ninth graders and goes more in depth with 12th graders by teaching more advanced financial practices. 

“With classes sprinkled throughout Cullman, we rely on volunteer facilitators to go into the schools and teach the material. Our facilitators come from many walks of life and each have their own personal touch to add to the lesson, which helps the students to better relate. We are always looking for facilitators and would love to talk to you about this opportunity. The time requirement would be one class period per week for 12 weeks. Though we are teaching important lessons, we add in some fun with weekly activities, t-shirt design contest and a graduation at the end which includes food, fun and T-shirts. 

Literacy Coordinator Reginnia Roat

Roat heads up Volunteers in Public Schools (VIPS), Kindergarten readiness camps, summer enrichment programs, after-school tutoring, adult literacy and English as a second language (ESL) classes. 

Roat described VIPS as “a school-based mentoring program that matches volunteer mentors with at-risk elementary students from both our city and county schools.  Mentors typically spend one hour each week one-on-one with students being an encourager and cheerleader for the student as well as helping them with any academic struggles they may be experiencing.”

In 2019, 47 volunteer mentors served 226 students. 

Roat said that the Kindergarten readiness camps “took place at five sites throughout the county during the last two weeks of July. The camps help to prepare students entering kindergarten with the basic skills of letter and number recognition, shape and color recognition, as well as helping them with scissor grip, pencil usage and learning to write their name.”

In 2019, 64 volunteers served 111 students and 37 parents.

Roat told The Tribune that the summer enrichment program “takes place two days per week for six weeks each summer at The Link of Cullman County. Students receive a free hot lunch, a fun enrichment activity and individual tutoring to help them bridge the gap from one grade level to the next.”

In 2019, 16 volunteers served 46 students.

In the after-school tutoring program, according to Roat, “volunteer tutors are paired with children who need help in individual subject areas such as math or reading. Tutors typically meet with their student for one hour once a week in the afternoon after school dismisses here at The Link.”

In 2019, five volunteers served 10 students.

The adult literacy program “matches volunteer reading coaches with adults who need help learning to read or learning to read better. Coaches typically meet with their adult student for one to two hours each week here at The Link.”

In 2019, three volunteer reading coaches served four adult learners. 

ESL classes are “for adults who need help learning to read and speak English or to improve their conversational English skills. There are daytime classes two days per week, as well as a night class once each week. English learners this past year came from a multitude of different countries before living in Cullman. Typically, each year we serve folks from eight to ten different countries.”

In 2019, four volunteers served 30 learners.  

In all, 464 clients were served by 139 literacy volunteers.

Roat told The Tribune, “We hope to expand all of those this year, as far as reaching more people.”

Life Skills Coordinator Amber McLaughlin

McLaughlin described the Link’s “Renew You” program: 

“Some of the classes taught are Parenting, Anger Management, Budgeting, Jobs for Life, Boundaries, Changes that Heal, Switch on Your Brain.  We have five terms a year, and our classes are once a week for eight weeks. We have public classes here at The Link, but in 2019 we’ve partnered with two recovery houses from Cullman, Childhaven, DHR and the Cullman County Detention Center. In 2020 we have hopes to gain even more partnerships with organizations in our community. Last year, 226 people-from all partners-came to at least one of our classes. We had 113 graduates. I have five active volunteers teaching inside the Cullman County Detention Center to the women inmates.”

Family Support Advocate Carrie Woods

Woods supervises the only income-based supervised visitation program in the Cullman area.

Said Woods, “Through this program, we were able to serve 30 children and their families in 2019.  The Link provides supervised visitation on a sliding scale to determine income-based fees for each family so that they can best use the resources that they have available to them. Paying expensive fees for visitation and other services that parents need to work to better themselves can be a real hardship. We want to make sure those things are within reach for families in our community and only with the help of the community, are we able to do that.  

“It is important to us that we are able to provide families a warm and welcoming atmosphere where parents feel supported while also being held to expectations that encourage them to be the best parent they can be. Parents can tap into other resources here at The Link where they can learn valuable and practical life skills. Custodial parents can have peace of mind that their child is being well cared for and where safety is a priority. Children in this program often have experienced a good deal of change and can have difficulty with transitions and new environments. My education and training provide me the opportunity to support children in transitioning into and out of environments and situations and we think that is really important for the children we serve here at The Link.”

ONE-Eighty program Case Manager Aubrey Moore

The ONE-Eighty program is currently in its planning and implementation stage and will start meeting with individuals later in the year. 

Moore told The Tribune, “We are so excited about our new ONE-Eighty program that is funded through a federal grant from the Second Chance Act. The purpose of the ONE-Eighty program is to reduce recidivism in our community by providing services to recently released individuals. The Link will work closely with the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office and receive referrals from the Cullman County Office of Probation and Parole. Link staff will work alongside these individuals by providing services that promote long-term moral and spiritual growth. We are confident these services will assist individuals in becoming contributing members of society again and we cannot wait to watch renewal take place in their lives.”

Director Julie Hall

The director got the final word, commending her board of directors and offering a simple statement about her staff: “They’re amazing!”

“We can’t do what we do without every community partner that we have. And there are a ton: there are churches and organizations that come and do volunteer work and service work. And the high school kids, they come and do community service for their college prep.”

Pointing around the table to her staff, Hall said, “This is an army, but there’s an army behind this army, who are in the trenches, fighting with us. Reginnia has a million volunteers! Paige’s community meal is volunteer-run; churches provide the food. It is an unbelievable amount of volunteer hours. We want to thank the community for all that they supported in 2019, like we could not have gotten numbers if it hadn’t been for those people either supporting in volunteer hours, in funding, in word of mouth. This staff wants to tell the community of Cullman how grateful we are. 

“We get to do what we do every day because someone supported us. We’re very grateful and thankful, and excited, because 2020 is a brand-new decade. It’s brand new for us, as far as this staff configuration. We’re super excited about what this team is going to do in 2020. Like, we’re excited! We’ve got a new program coming up, we’ve got expansion happening. Amber’s program is expanding, Carrie’s program is expanding, the food bank has taken off and done great. 

“We just can’t wait to see the ways that we get to love and serve in this community in 2020. This is what we live for; this is what we live for. We come to work every day humble and grateful that we get to serve our community and our God in this way. 

“You know, there are people who want to serve and they don’t know, and we get to do it every day. We’re just blown away by that. We couldn’t do that without the community’s help.”

For more on The Link of Cullman County, visit www.linkingcullman.org or call 256-775-0028.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com