Partnering with the Community

The Value of a Lead Agency

The partnership between the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Fulton County Office on Aging, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta was “a natural marriage,” says Regine Denis, program manager of aging services for the Fulton County Office of Aging, but like all marriages, it requires work.

Tempted by the convenience of sharing resources, the partners were not fully aware of the challenges they would face as they worked towards common interests in East Point. At first, they tried consensus-based decisionmaking, but their approaches were too different. Someone had to be in charge of the East Point NORC Program, and the Atlanta Regional Commission eventually assumed that role.

“We had some good, healthy discussions” acknowledges Ms. Denis. “Ultimately, what took us over some of the challenges was that no one could outweigh the customers’ voices. We always lean towards what the seniors and the advisory groups and the surveys tell us.”

Putting one agency in charge had logistical advantages and proved essential to realizing larger goals. “Without someone who has an overall vision and sense of purpose, we were afraid we would have a collection of interesting activities, rather than something we can really use and learn from,” says Kathryn Lawler, then project director of ARC’s Aging Atlanta initiative. “The NORC programs are about changing the way we do business in the region. We can’t have that effect unless there is a lead agency.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta continues to use the lead agency model as it expands into other communities. “At each new site, we look at the partnerships and resources already in place and identify a lead agency,” says Shira Ledman, former Planning Director of the Federation’s NORC programs. “We serve as the umbrella for all the sites.” (As of October 2008, the Federation was using federal and state dollars to fund NORC programs in six Georgia sites.)

Drawing on Community Assets

Local partnerships have been the key to leveraging resources and offering services at the East Point NORC Program. “We collect partners and collaborate, instead of funding new services that will always be on the brink of not being refunded,” emphasizes Ms. Lawler. “Our main theme is finding existing resources and using them in different ways.”

For example:

The local library had traditionally focused on youth, but it began to offer a book club for older adults.

A local health provider expanded to offer a vision clinic, with free eye exams and discounted eyeglasses.

New exercise classes for older adults at a local recreation center expanded the options available, especially to those uncomfortable with a seniors-only setting.

Sometimes, the challenge is not so much bringing in new partners, but finding ways to engage those who are already at the table and eager to contribute. The police and fire departments were interested in being part of the NORC program from its earliest days, but their role was not immediately obvious. “We weren’t sure how they would fit in, but we didn’t want to lose their interest,” says Ms. Lawler.

Program planners stayed alert to opportunities, recognizing that the contributions of a partner often emerge, evolve, and grow over time, and they quickly found them. Police officers and firefighters became involved in a number of non-traditional initiatives that had an impact on community safety, including door-to-door home safety checks and the walking clubs.

And then there was the fashion show. Cops and firefighters, joined by water and electricity meter readers, Federal Express delivery personnel, and others strutted down a catwalk in uniform. The idea was to introduce residents to the people who might come to their doors. “It was also a great way to build relationships between older adults and those who are responsible for community safety,” emphasized Ms. Lawler. “It was helpful, informative, and fun, and it bonded everyone to the NORC program.” Continued...

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