The Portland Foundation recently wrapped up a lengthy process that looked at key challenges impacting Jay County, setting six priorities on which to take action moving forward.

The foundation was awarded a $100,000 Community Leadership Grant as part of the seventh phase of Lilly Endowment’s Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow (GIFT VII) initiative in fall 2020. Over the course of the last year and a half, foundation staff and community leaders have worked toward developing a strategy to “combat the interrelated issues of the opioid epidemic, high child poverty, low post-secondary educational attainment and low workforce development skills.”

“The whole goal at the end of this project was to begin moving the needle in these areas,” said Doug Inman, executive director of The Portland Foundation. “They’re not solvable problems any time soon. (But we want to) make sure things are moving forward in a good direction.”

After an initial community meeting in early 2021, two committees were formed to address the inter-related challenges the foundation had identified. An additional steering committee led the overall direction of the process.

Those groups, which included local government officials, law enforcement, local educators, representatives from various organizations and others, ended up focusing on six areas of need to address. They are:

•Affordable, quality early care and education
•Education and workforce development
•Chronic school absenteeism
•Improved system of care (support for families dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, etc.)
•Parenting skills
•Drug abuse prevention
A leader has been assigned to each of those areas.

Dave Bennett of Community Foundation Research and Training Institute Institute in Grabill and John Peirce of Peirce Consulting guided the effort.

The work included gathering data that shows the extent of some of the local challenges, such as Jay County’s lack of daycare availability (it had 12 available per 100 children in 2020 compared to an average of 21.3 statewide), an increase in absentee rates at schools (92 elementary school students were considered chronically absent in 2021 compared to 47 two years earlier) and drug overdose death (there were 13 in 2017 and 11 in 2019).

“The consultants we hired to work on the project did a phenomenal job,” said Inman. “They did a great job leading the community through this process. It was a good process to start with four defined issues and work toward determining a way to change those in the future. … It was well worth the time and effort.”

Some efforts are already being made toward addressing the areas identified by the committee, including The Portland Foundation’s push for a daycare and early childhood education center at the former Judge Haynes Elementary School.

There may be an opportunity to address others through the state’s Hoosier Enduring Legacy Program (HELP), in which Jay County is one of the inaugural participants. HELP is designed to assist communities in deciding how best to use the federal coronavirus relief funding — in Jay County’s case, nearly $4 million — it received through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Inman said the most important thing for the foundation and the community is to keep pushing toward the goals laid out by the committees that worked through the planning process.

“I think keys to success are just going to be making sure we continue to talk about (these) issues, that this document is not put on a shelf,” he said. “These are too important to the community’s future to just say, ‘Hey, we did this,’ and then put it away forever.”