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Community Progress Brightens Gloomy February

One of my favorite cartoons shows two schoolboys in a blinding snowstorm.   It’s dark out; they’re bundled up and hunched against the wind; clearly, they’re miserable.  One boy looks at the other and says, “I can see why they made February the shortest month.”

That line resonates with me during these grey days and cold nights, especially when I often work on some pretty bleak subjects:  kids dropping out of school, homelessness, childhood obesity, hunger.  But bright spots of recent progress in those areas promise to make THIS February a lot less gloomy.

This week, for example, Montana’s nine United Ways were honored by the state Office of Public Instruction for our work on Graduation Matters Montana.   Sparked in Missoula, Graduation Matters is now a statewide initiative to help kids stay and succeed in school through high-school graduation. 

United Way’s involvement brings the issue of student success out of the schools and into the community.  We have forged strong networks of business, nonprofit and community allies across the state to help schools, parents and teachers ensure the future success of our students.   We ALL have a stake – and a role to play – in seeing that Montana kids graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in careers, in college and in life. 

In Missoula, guided by a city- and county-approved plan that is both aspirational and practical, housing and service providers are forging ahead to implement the early stages of Reaching Home: Missoula’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. 

A major first step is helping people at risk of, or already experiencing, homelessness to obtain or stay in safe, affordable housing, and get linked to the services they need.

The research phase of the 10-Year Plan showed that – if they’re able to obtain housing – many homeless people can keep themselves housed.   They have jobs, and they can pay rent; they just can’t come up with the many hundreds of dollars it can take to put down first and last month’s rent and a security deposit. 

Reaching Home calls for funding to provide that sort of help, and Missoula nonprofits have excelled at securing it.  This year, more than $250,000 – managed by WORD, the Human Resource Council and YWCA of Missoula – will help folks struggling with the rent barrier.  There are restrictions on the use of the money, and $250,000 still isn’t enough, but the bottom line is that a lot more of our neighbors will be housed this year than in years past.

One of the plan’s early goals is a single point of entry for folks who are homeless or about to fall into homelessness.  A new software program in the works marks a major step toward that goal.   The Community Housing and Referral Information System will better coordinate services to homeless people.  CHRIS will also help avoid duplication, find holes in our service model, yield a wealth of data about Missoula’s homeless population, and better track success stories.

On the hunger front, in an effort to reduce the growing number of Missoulians unsure of where their next meal is coming from, Missoula Food Bank is spearheading a new Food Security Initiative to examine the causes of hunger.  Why is it that one in seven Missoula County residents uses the food bank, one-third of them younger than 18?  Why are more than 15,000 of our neighbors – thousands of them kids – enrolled in the SNAP program – formerly known as food stamps?  

It’s not easy to “walk upstream” to address complicated causal factors, but disparate players that include food providers; anti-hunger advocates; retailers; and business, transportation and school leaders are committed to making Missoula more food secure and stronger.

Ironically, in a community where food security is a serious issue, so, too, is childhood obesity.  Studies of Missoula County third-graders and University of Montana students reveal alarming levels of overweight and obese kids.  This doesn’t square with Missoula’s image as an active, outdoorsy, local-food-eating, healthy place – and obesity has tremendous economic consequences down the road, including the cost of treating things like heart disease and diabetes. 

Let’s Move! Missoula, our community’s effort to address childhood obesity, is working to stem this troubling tide.  This month, teachers, administrators, parents and concerned citizens will gather at a Summit for Healthy Kids.  We’ll focus on the strong link between nutrition and learning; specifically on improving the quality of food available at school, other than from the cafeteria.  This includes food given out in classrooms; and sold in vending machines, at student stores, and as fundraisers.  

Let’s Move! partners are not a bunch of Nanny Staters coming after kids’ cupcakes; we’re helping schools offer healthy foods to fuel healthy minds, because good food choices at school reduce childhood obesity.

These are just a few examples of things that make MY February – this short, dark month – a bit brighter.  If you want to brighten your own February, make a difference in your community.  Email, and we’ll help.  I’m Susan Hay Patrick with United Way of Missoula County.   Thanks for listening. 

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