A simple concept with astonishing scope, Community Connection is the backbone of Athens nonprofit outreach.
At its core, Community Connection is a helpline. And in a city where the poverty rate is more than twice the national average, a lot of people are in need.
“There is a tremendous amount of need in our community,” says Fenwick Broyard, executive director of Community Connection, “and it’s growing.”
Athens-Clarke County has a poverty rate of 34.9 percent, a statistic that far exceeds the national average of about 17 percent. In response, Community Connection is growing too. In its 30th year, the nonprofit is working harder than ever to meet the rising needs of the community.
It starts with 2-1-1, the oldest and most utilized service Community Connection offers. Anyone, anytime, anywhere in Athens-Clarke County and its 11 surrounding counties can dial 2-1-1 and receive immediate assistance. The 2-1-1 hotline and online database is a referral service, created to connect people with the local agency that can best meet their need.
“From 2-1-1 we are able to identify what the real needs are in our community,” says Broyard.
In his eighth month as executive director, Fenwick Broyard, a New Orleans native with a big smile and an easy disposition, is shaking things up in a big way.
The old philosophy was that Community Connection is a direct service provider.
“I’m coming in with a different way at looking at it,” says Broyard. “We’re kind of redefining ourselves.”
In his eyes, 2-1-1 is essentially a “pass-through.”
“We are the outreach team for all those other agencies,” he says. “We can identify what unmet needs there are in Athens and connect agencies with clients they don’t already have.”
Community Connection doesn’t stop there. They coordinate and recruit volunteers, 3,000 of which are registered to their database. They offer nonprofit development such as grant writing services, strategic planning and executive board trainings. And they create incubation programs to address unmet need.
“For instance, we are developing a program in response to the needs of community engagement and leadership development among high school kids,” says Community Connection intern Lynn Guo.
“We’ve helped start some of the strongest organizations in town,” says Broyard. Project Safe, the homeless shelter, Athens Justice Project, and the Athens Twilight Foundation were all started as Community Connection incubation programs.
The new vision is for Community Connection to have a “bird’s eye view.”
“A macro agency whose job it is to be at arms length from everything that’s going on and can recognize trends and changes and emergent challenges,” Broyard says.
In a literal sense, Community Connection could hardly be described as macro, seeing as the nonprofit itself consists of just three full-time employees. Alongside Broyard, Dawn Aiello serves as the director of community programs and Rosario Huisa serves as the 2-1-1 information and referral specialist. The organization also has one part-time employee, a handful of interns and a board of directors.
Guo says the small environment is one of the most rewarding parts of working at Community Connection. “It is a small nonprofit, where personal contributions are highly valued, and I can see what I am doing and how it will impact our clients.”
But don’t be fooled, this small team packs a big punch. In the past year alone, 35,000 individuals and families received assistance from the hotline and database. For 24-hour referral, dial 2-1-1 or visit http://communityconnection211.org/.
“A number of people have called us in tears looking for help, and the sigh of relief when we're able to provide them with more resources than they'd had is the most amazing feeling. Clients appreciate the fact that we go the extra mile to connect them to community resources, and they let us know,” says intern Brittany Cotton.
But as the need continues to grow, Community Connection is determined to be even better.
“I want everybody be critical about everything. There is no good enough,” says Broyard. “It’s about creative people thinking critically on how to improve the service.”
This is the new mentality. Community Connection is moving in a new direction with the goal of creating a more efficient and accessible service.
“I think it's headed towards an overhaul. The existing programs will be better evaluated and redesigned or a more efficient one will take their place. Community Connection has been doing the same thing for decades. I think it's time to expand and impact more of the community with new ideas,” says Cotton.
Currently, Broyard and his team are focused on getting the word out. The entire website was recently updated to a much cleaner and more user-friendly format, and the platform will soon be completely revamped to enable mobile capability. “We want to make this service more accessible,” says Broyard.
His vision is to send out volunteers with ipads to the streets to help people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the service. Another idea, one that an intern found after doing some research about a similar organization in Massachusetts, is to set up workstations at the local libraries.
As with any nonprofit, Community Connection needs funding. But few organizations raise money with more style. Each year, Community Connection holds their Taste of Athens event, coupled with a 10k walk/run. Celebrating 30 years of Community Connection, 1,600 guests attended and nearly 60 restaurants and vendors, including local favorites like 5 & 10, Speakeasy, Porterhouse and Terrapin all donated food and drink.
Broyard is thinking bigger. Though the annual fundraiser made budget, he believes the event is capable of a lot more. “I want to make Taste of Athens a real tourist draw.”
Taste of Atlanta and Taste of Chicago gain regional and national attention, and Broyard thinks Taste of Athens can do the same. “We have celebrity chefs and a food culture that is gaining recognition.” He wants to market to nearby cities like Charleston, Atlanta and Nashville to really make Taste of Athens a destination.
For Guo, Community Connections’ main strength is response. “We have the capability to respond to the needs of the community,” she says.
“We are connected with every local nonprofit in Athens,” says Broyard. Community Connection is also an affiliate of Hands on Northeast Georgia, works with UGA’s center for leadership and the office of service learning, and is a partner of United Way.
Whether it’s a 2-1-1 hotline referral, a training session for a new nonprofit executive, or matching a volunteer to an agency, Community Connection works tirelessly to meet the needs of Northeast Georgia.
The need is growing, but so is Community Connection.
“We want to tip the scales,” says Broyard.