Link of Cullman County rethinks approaches, finds new partners in 2020

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Among The Link of Cullman County’s first responses to the pandemic was a drive-through food distribution program. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Link of Cullman County, an organization that seeks to bring together multiple resources to combat poverty in our area, faced a serious task in 2020: helping a growing number of people and confronting growing needs while being hindered in fundraising efforts and unable to be face-to-face with the people it was trying to help.

A statement from The Link said, “So, how does an organization with 12 board members, seven staff members, many faithful volunteers and a slew of interns and work study students transition in a pandemic? They take a journey. They begin by looking at what works: empowering people to become all they were meant to be works, supporting the physical needs of people for food and shelter works. They settle in their hearts that all people, including themselves, are moving toward personal and relational wholeness.

“The beginning of 2020 involved big adjustments for the Link team members.  With Julie Hall as the team leader and director of neighbor relations and Melissa Betts coming aboard as the director of community relations, each team member began a personal journey: to sharpen their strengths, to push through their weaknesses, and to open their hearts to new (and returning) team members. Just as they began to set the course for the year, COVID-19 put everything on hold – except their neighbors’ needs.  So just like a well-connected GPS, the team recalculated the course.”

Continuing to feed with community help

“In March, as schools began to realize their perishables would go to waste, The Link became a distribution center not only for neighbors to obtain food items, but other agencies as well,” said Hall. “Suddenly, organizations and their leadership were collaborating in a way they never had before. Bridges were built out of necessity, and they remain strong and stable for the journey towards 2021. Uncharted territories had to be crossed. How does an organization continue their food pantry ministry during a quarantine with specific guidelines? Master’s Hands Program Coordinator and Lead Encourager Paige Williams turn(ed) it into a drive-thru pantry. Food from the food bank, in addition to 400 produce boxes from the (North Alabama) Agriplex and 250 produce boxes from Farm to Families, is distributed out in the parking lot. The team distributed 2,282 bags of food to 1,030 households. They were able to have extra hands because of a partnership with the Wallace State Occupational Therapy Assistant program that sent 30 students to The Link on a fieldwork rotation! What a blessing, the partnership with Laura Smith, OTA program director, and Kelly Krigbaum, academic fieldwork coordinator, was to Master’s Hands and the entire Link Team.

“The Team also blazed a new trail with two local food establishments – Milo’s Hamburgers and Jack’s. Through the efforts of the management of these two benevolent restaurants, about 1,200 lunches were served on alternating weeks. The Gathering Community Meal became the Carry-out Community Meal as 1,539 meals were served in drive through style! That number does not include the 600 meals that were served in conjunction with Emily Chamblee and her ‘Faithful Friends’ at the Thanksgiving Meal (and they only set The Link’s smoke alarm off once!).”

Continuing to support education through changing methods and new partnerships

Hall shared, “While Cullman’s schools have been in again-out again, The Link did their part to empower and support the incoming class of kindergartners and their families with the annual Kindergarten Readiness Camp. With some last-minute site adjustments and some well-thought-out safety protocols, Reginnia Roat, literacy programs coordinator, successfully served 100 students, 49 family members and a whopping 47 amazing volunteers! Anonymous program completion surveys from parents repeatedly stated, ‘My child received exactly what they needed- social interaction skills or academic skills- to be successful in kindergarten.’ 

“COVID-19 actually allowed The Link to build a new partnership with Kingdom Life Church. Pastor Heath Tinker said, ‘It’s always an honor to partner with The Link to see the change and growth in our Cullman community for the better. The Kindergarten Readiness Camp has a positive impact for the teachers, parents and students. It is our joy to be part of this wonderful program.’

“The high schools in our Cullman community usually host our Wise-Up Financial Literacy program during the spring and fall semesters. In March, we sent emails to the host teachers that began with, ‘In light of the schools closing…’ and that was the end of the spring semester of Wise-Up. The Link team took out their road map and looked for another route to get this important financial information to the students of their community. Therefore, the Wise Up YouTube channel was born. Thanks to volunteer ‘video teachers,’ eight video lessons were created and made available to the host teachers. The handouts and worksheets were provided via email. The fall semester student numbers were lower than previous years, but the videos on the Wise Up YouTube channel have a combined total of 454 views.

“For non-traditional teaching opportunities, The Link looked to Amber McLaughlin, Renew U coordinator. Thanks to her willingness to be flexible and adapt to the need for distance learning, 392 people were impacted by on-line and socially distanced classroom curriculums. These curriculums were specifically designed for adults seeking to increase their parenting skills, develop their relational skills, and manage their anger. With the help of three full time Wallace OTA Program interns and 11 rock-star volunteers, the Renew U program reached the 2020 destination: life transformation.”

Continuing to help families heal, emotionally and spiritually

For parents who legally require supervision to spend time with their children, The Link provides a safe and court-approved location for visitation. Shutdowns and social distancing provided challenges, but The Link responded.

Said Hall, “With supervised visitation, sometimes the distance to be traveled toward wholeness is complex. It was made more so by COVID-19 and its difficulties. Carrie Woods, family support advocate, was able to directly provide services to 60 people. There were 81 people impacted by the services provided. The Link was awarded a grant from The Children’s Trust Fund to assist with additional parental education opportunities. 

“While there were challenges, there were also victories. A confession of faith occurred during the midst of the restrictions. The eternity of that parent, and possibly future generations, was changed. No COVID roadblock can interrupt God’s perfect plan of salvation for His children! 

“Thanks to The Rotary Foundation of Cullman and the Wells Fargo Foundation, plans are in place to create a parent-lab and outdoor area so that services can be provided more organically.”

Preparing to help people make a new start

The Link has created programs geared toward helping people in the correctional system make a smooth transition back to life outside, with tools that can help them avoid ending up back in that system. 

Hall said, “The fall of 2020 was meant to be the launch of the ONE-eighty program.  COVID-19 created a detour. Oct. 1 should have seen a super-highway of participants to Cullman’s only Second Chance Act Grant recipients, but all they have seen is a socially-distanced single file line. This program will begin its first cognitive behavioral therapy groups in January of 2021, and Case Manager Aubrey Moore has done the preparation to ensure all policies and procedures are in place. She recruited and trained volunteer mentors who will assist participants in the development of pro-social skills. Be on the lookout for updates about the impact that this program has on recidivism in Cullman County.”

Surprising successes in fundraising and new community partnerships

Hall said, “Fundraising was a bumpy road on the journey of 2020. Grill-Master Competition? Ugh, up in smoke! Golf Tourney? Yes, but only because you can social distance on the green! Sean of the South? Nope, the storytelling will have to wait!  

“However, The Link’s recent ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ campaign, created by Director of Community Relations Melissa Betts, raised $51,000. Ms. Betts had been thinking through ways to create new connections when Saints MC asked if there was a need that they could help meet. Homelessness weighs heavy on the staff and has traditionally been an underfunded line item. The Saints agreed they could meet that need. When Chicken Salad Chick wanted to partner with The Link, a resounding yes! When the Red Cross wanted to partner with The Link, why yes! In 2021 The Red Cross-Cullman, The Committee on Church Cooperation, and The Crossing will all be providing their services at the Link facility. We are so grateful to be in partnership with these organizations!”

The final word

Hall concluded, “Our new mission statement says we exist to build empowering and supportive Christ-like relationships with our neighbors on the journey toward personal and relational wholeness. That is what we focused on doing in 2020. We want to do what Christ commanded: to love God and love our neighbor. Our neighbors include those that provide services and those that need services. We want and need to build relationships with everyone. We are all on this journey toward wholeness, and we are better together.”

Learn more about The Link of Cullman County at www.linkingcullman.org.

Copyright 2021 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com