About a dozen people are sitting around a table at the Baldwin County Commission’s annex in Robertsdale. They represent several agencies trying to make a difference in the lives of children.
They speak of the effects of poverty, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, parents who don’t care, even lack of transportation as keeping at-risk children from reaching their potential. Many agency representatives don’t have immediate solutions to what are difficult societal problems. But they keep trying.
They’re getting some help from the Community Foundation of South Alabama, which is sponsoring a series of “deliberative forums” in its eight-county service area. In conjunction with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, based in Montevallo, the meeting is an opportunity to brainstorm and work together to solve problems through the foundation’s “Closing the Opportunity Gap Initiative.”
Many of the social services representatives noted while Baldwin County is known as an affluent, growing, economically strong county, poverty is a reality in many areas. Affordable housing is a real problem in central Baldwin and along the coast, where many people work in tourism industry service jobs.
Statistics provided to the forum confirm not everyone is living well. Infant mortality, low birthweights and teen pregnancies are slightly higher than the national average. Three percent of Baldwin households don’t have a vehicle. Nearly 20 percent of children live below the poverty line. Nearly 42 percent of Baldwin school students are eligible for the free lunch program. Some 26.8 percent live in single-parent homes.
“A lot of families are not strong,” said Keshia Boltz, prevent coordinator for the Baldwin County Child Advocacy Center; children don’t get the support, guidance or discipline they need at home, and those issues are thrown back to the schools. Drug abuse is a growing problem, she said. The center has dealt with 500 drug abuse cases this year alone.
Ed Stephens, senior district executive for the Boy Scouts of America Mobile Area Council, said it’s too easy for some children to get lost in the shuffle. “Every child can make a difference,” he said. “Every child is important.”
Juvenile Probation Officer Danny Criswell said if a child reaches him, that means someone else has failed. But he noted spring break arrest numbers for juveniles were down considerably this year. Criswell thinks rising rental prices may have discouraged young people who try to cram into condos, but they are still drinking somewhere else.
Participants in the forum said it was good for them to meet each other and start thinking of how they can collaborate. Another forum was held in Daphne last week. Over the next several months, the information gathered at the forums will be used to bolster the foundation’s grantmaking strategy and engage the community in helping what it describes as “fragile families.”