A sense of connection and belonging help people feel like a vital part of the place they live, work, and call home. A stronger community means a more efficient and flourishing livelihood for everybody within it. Jasper Newton Foundation recognizes the vitality of communities and has worked to develop a plan to strengthen the existing bonds between Jasper and Newton Counties. The plan is called Driving Home.

At its core, Driving Home is a ten-year plan to improve our counties and make them a place that residents are proud to call home.

“When I started my role at JNF in 2016, the idea of Driving Home was already swirling in my mind. I wanted to find a way to empower our own people to create the best place we all want to live in – together; every single one of us.  Driving Home is the roadmap to get us there.”

Brienne Hooker, JNF Executive Director

Utilizing the stories, experiences, and ideas from various local citizens involved in government, business, education, non-profits, and foundations, a plan was formulated by a group of committee members that represent both Newton and Jasper Counties, in hopes of best addressing the most pressing issues that the area is facing. Afterwards, a vision was established. The end goal of Driving Home strives to create a community that celebrates diversity, heritage, growth, and innovation, as well as making it a place where residents can be active, feel happy, and have a deep sense of belonging.

To better explain Driving Home and its vision, it’s helpful to use a story analogy. The overarching story is that Jasper and Newton Counties will become a leader in rural placemaking, offering a vibrant place to live, work, and raise a healthy, prosperous, happy family. This story has four narratives that are crucial to the execution of its plot. Each of these narratives have fifteen storylines that serve as guidelines and goals to achieve success.

The first narrative is Vibrant Community. Creating a vibrant community is about more than just a place to live – it’s about creating a place where people feel connected, engaged, and fulfilled. Through storylines such as offering diverse dining options, creating easy access to local events and activities, and supporting local art, our communities will become enriched with culture, art, and dining, creating a welcoming atmosphere for all.

The next narrative is Prosperous Community. A prosperous community is one where all residents have equal opportunities to strive and thrive professionally, where small businesses are abundant, and innovation is everywhere. A few storylines such as providing business resources, leveraging local talent in agriculture, and incentivizing business relocation will help with making this narrative a reality. Our communities will build the capacity to attract, employ, and retain sources and employers of talent.

The third narrative is Quality Life. With Quality Life, Driving Home envisions a vibrant and thriving community where residents are empowered to lead both physically and mentally healthy lifestyles with a robust infrastructure that supports access to healthcare, healthy food options, and opportunities for physical activity. Some storylines that would help Driving Home pursue these endeavors would be ensuring easy access to Urgent Care facilities, establishing year-round fitness centers, and offering substance abuse prevention. Our communities will become a place to live a healthy, active, and fulfilled life for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The final narrative is Kids & Families. A great place for kids and families is one where children can thrive, and parents have access to resources and tools that empower them to raise healthy, happy families. Offering support for single parent and non-traditional families, establishing community centers and gathering places, and providing access to quality early education are some of the storylines that will guide this narrative. Our communities will become great places to build a family, raise and educate our children, and establish roots.

The overall action plan is to implement the storylines into the everyday lives of community members. This will be accomplished using the plot points (going back to the story analogy) to inspire projects and programs that the committee believes will address each narrative’s storylines. Plot points range from creating a community-wide fitness challenge to making it easier to find and utilize quality pre-K educational resources. The projects and programs created from these plot points will be funded through JNF (and other financial partners) using Driving Home specific grants.

Being a committee member is not the only way to get involved with Driving Home. Other nonprofits and citizens can submit a letter of intent with an idea for review. If it falls within the storylines of the narratives and the guidelines of the grant process, then there’s a good chance that a new plot point could be created. The intent of Driving Home is collaboration. It takes a variety of people and ideas to make this project have positive, lasting impacts on our communities.

One of the most recent projects funded by Driving Home is a Soil & Water Conservation Internship that is offered to students residing in Newton County. Not only does this paid internship give students the opportunity to garner real-life work experience, but they can also earn credit for their high school diplomas. The application window was open until April 10, 2023. Fourteen students applied and an interview process was conducted to narrow down the applicants. In the end, four students were selected for the paid positions, with one more being offered a shadowing non-paid spot. This is a $100K grant over three years that will directly affect 24 local students, but the ripple effects will be much greater.

There are a variety of projects that are currently in the brainstorming/planning phase. What’sUp 24/7 is software that helps connect residents with events, leagues, classes, promotions, and anything else that could be happening in the area. Currently, Newton County is in the very early stages of implementing it. With some training and collaboration, the hope is that businesses and organizations of both counties will make use of this software to spread awareness of local happenings. Along with that, establishing a community newspaper in both print and digital form to better link the communities together and increase access to local government information has been discussed. Additionally, Belstra Milling has been offering ESL/conversational Spanish classes to employees for two years now and this model is being looked at to gradually open this kind of learning to the whole community.

On top of language resources coming to the community, UnitedWay and the Center of Workforce Innovation has identified Jasper and Newton Counties as an area in need of a Workforce Hub. To get more information and inspiration on what all that could entail for the community, Driving Home committee members attended a career training forum at the Whitko Career Academy. Not only could a Workforce Hub potentially offer the youth more opportunities for job training, but it would also help adults who wanted to improve their lives and education.

To summarize, Driving Home is a comprehensive and ambitious effort to make Jasper and Newton Counties a better place to live. To accomplish this feat, four crucial narratives, Vibrant Community, Prosperous Community, Quality Life, and Kids & Families, with detailed storylines have been developed. By working simultaneously on these narratives that make up a community’s story with many local partners, Driving Home will make targeted changes and improve the whole landscape of Jasper and Newton Counties.

By: Lizzie Parrish, Jasper Newton Foundation Intern

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