League of Women discuss economy

League of Women Voters (LWV) spoke with members of the community Tuesday about the economy and its affect on children and families.

Topics included how the economic and political situations have affected their areas, groups and organizations; and ways the community can support these agencies.

“The focus of the League of Women Voters this year is children and families,” said JoAnn Spees, LWV member and director of Project Potential at Hickory High School. “We know that in the last year, and currently, we are almost in a tsunami of evil things happening that are changing the course of life for young people, especially for those who may be disenfranchised or less gifted.”

Sydney Smith, program supervisor of the Guardian ad Litem Program of the Catawba County, said Guardian ad Litem members are court appointed advocates for children in foster care.

Because of the current state of the economy and the Workforce Reduction program, the organization has seen an increase in vacancies.

“Our region took the hardest hit with vacancies that happened, regionally, we had about 56 staff people and we now have 44,” Smith said. “Just in our district, we are down 43 percent with our staff.”

While the number of staff is decreasing, the number of children seeking help from the Guardian ad Litem program is increasing. In order to manage the increase in children, the program has begun training volunteers to investigate the cases. Additionally, the program can no longer offer mileage reimbursement to volunteers.

Without the guarantee of reimbursement and the steep price of gas, as well as different personal matters occurring in Caldwell County volunteers’ lives, there has been a significant decrease in volunteers, which is the most severely affected county at the moment.

“We are hoping to hear some news that we are able to fill some of our vacancies and get Caldwell County operating, because as we know, in the end it really affects the children and that’s what has been the hardest,” Smith said.

Kim Salyards, executive director for Catawba County Partnership for Children said her agency is set up to ensure that children are entering school healthy and prepared for success.

Traditionally, Partnership for Children has sought to focus on the childcare community, which consists of 50 percent of Catawba County, by providing well-fitting environments and offering early education.

Furthermore, while it’s important to provide quality childcare, Salyards discussed the difficulty some parents have affording it and what Partnership for Children offers those in this situation.

“We have programs through Social Services funds and Smart Start dollars and other dollars that help families afford to put their child in legal care,” Salyards said.

As a predominately state-funded program, Partnership for Children has been faced with handling this program with cuts to the funds.

“In this last legislative session, we had about a 23 percent cut to our services to Catawba County for Smart Start,” Salyards said. “So it’s incredibly difficult to have that kind of cut and not see huge changes for children and families.”

With this cut, a large number of programs have been eliminated.

“It’s a sad time for us to just watch the things we’ve been building over the past 16 to 17 years here in Catawba County essentially to be slashed,” Salyards said. “And what’s left are just those core projects that are essential for early childhood in our county and maintaining infrastructure for what we believe is good for kids.”

Salyards said the way the community can help is through promoting early childhood education.

“In terms of making sure our community understands the importance of early childhood,” Salyards said. “It is not something that we can assume everyone gets… we have got to start early with these children.

We really need help in talking to our decision makers about the importance of early childhood.”

Lamar Mitchell, executive director at Catawba County Champions of Education said his group’s primary focus has been to convene and facilitate meetings with the business community and create partnerships that will be beneficial to the students in our schools.

“We’re really the convener and facilitator of these partnerships, but then once the partnerships are created, that operates independently of what we do,” Mitchell said. “We are bringing folks together that are not typically coming together and developing innovations and partnerships that might not otherwise have been thought of.”

Like other programs, Champions has not escaped the impacts of the budget cuts. Mitchell said with budget cuts, it will become more important for Champions to emphasize the importance of early education to businesses and legislature.

“From our standpoint at Champions of Education, our slogan is ‘We mean business when it comes to education,’” Mitchell said. “We’ve always looked at education as the ground floor of economic development, so it really doesn’t make sense as to what’s happening to the budget cuts because we’re losing critical investments that need to be made in the human capital that become our future workers.”

For the community to help, Mitchell supports speaking out and working to make up for the losses.

Beth Brandes, assistant director of Catawba County Social Services said Social Service’s mission is to promote self-sufficiency in our citizens, quality of life and protection of vulnerable populations, which are children and the elderly.

With the economic downturn, there has been a heightened demand in the need for Social Services, Brandes said. Food assistance numbers have increased 400 percent in Catawba County within the last decade.

Additionally, there has been an increase in the number of people applying for Medicaid and North Carolina Health Choice for Children.

“We have always been a strong partner with nonprofits in this community,” Brandes said. “Our nonprofits have almost been gutted in this economic downturn because they are not getting the donations they were getting, they are not the foundation money they were getting and they are not getting the state grants they were getting.”

Budgets for state-funded programs, school programs, juvenile justice programs, early-childhood programs will also be cut, Brandes said.

“The way we are approaching this is important,” Brandes said. “Two years ago, we were anticipating many of these cuts and so we went ahead and cut over a million dollars in staff and operations. We made cuts in 2009 that are helping us go through this currently without any other major cuts in staffing and in programs.”

Despite the necessary cuts, Brandes stated Social Services is still committed to its mission, protecting the vulnerable. As a community, she advocates dispelling myths and informing the public.

For more information on upcoming events sponsored by LWV or to learn how to get involved, visit lwv.org or see their Facebook page at League of Women Voters of Catawba Valley.