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Building Coalitions and Community in Lake County, Michigan

By any measure, the poverty statistics for Lake County Michigan are stark. The county has the highest child poverty rate in Michigan with more than 40% of children living below the poverty line, and the highest poverty rate in the Northern Michigan area at with more than a quarter of residents living in poverty. Nearly one in four families in Lake County receive food assistance, ranking it the second highest county in the state.

But Lake County also has a committed group of individuals and coalitions working on the frontlines to push these statistics down, while lifting residents up. Sometimes referring to themselves as the “S-T-P or “Same Ten People,” this group of social services providers, youth counselors, health educators and child advocates serve on multiple committees, attend countless community events, and pour their time and energy into making a positive impact.

“We are always working to find out what everyone is doing, how things are overlapping, how to connect those dots, and how to create a real continuum of care,” says Shawn Washington, executive director of Habitat for Humanity.

In that same spirit of collaboration, when Shawn learned about Poverty Solutions at U-M, she quickly reached out to learn more about the initiative and how Lake County could connect. She invited Poverty Solutions to join a meeting with this committed group (the S-T-P) to discuss their work on trauma and resiliency, and for Poverty Solutions to not only share more about our work and identify potential opportunities for collaboration, but also to listen to the experts on the frontlines and to learn more about the unique challenges and opportunities Lake County faces.

Some familiar themes emerged, such as access to transportation, quality child care, health care, and affordable housing — challenges that plague lower income individuals in urban, rural, and suburban areas alike.

“Transportation is such a big issue,” says Quran Griffin, health educator for the Department of Health district 10 and lead for the County’s work on trauma and resilience training.  “We have our public transportation (Dial-a-Ride) and they do a great job with the resources they have, but they stop services at 5:30 pm. Many groups also provide tokens for transportation, but the key issue is that transportation is not available during times we need it most. It’s not designed to help people in the workforce.”

Access to quality child care is also a concern. “There really is no childcare center here, says Faith Thomas Jones, parent liaison for Lake County for Great Start. “There are maybe five total child care providers, and not all are licensed. Plus, no one really wants to take on infants, and second or third shift care isn’t available.”

Access to quality health care is part of the equation, and Lake County lacks a regular pediatrician for families in the area. “Young mothers in my program have to travel to Big Rapids, Freemont, Cadillac,” said Faith Thomas Jones.  

“So we’re talking 40-70 miles just to see a doctor,” says Griffin. “And without access to reliable transportation, that is nearly impossible.”

“But it’s not all doom and gloom,” Shawn Washington says.  “We really have a lot of people who want more for the community. But sometimes these issues are not necessarily at the doorstep of the leaders who make the decisions about the citizens.”

In addition to this committed group, Lake County has several programs that are helping area youth succeed, such as the Baldwin Promise, and access to summer jobs through a program with the Youth Conservation Corps.

“The need is there, so we keep going,” says Faith Thomas Jones.

Next Steps

Several University of Michigan programs have connections, work, and relationships ongoing in Lake County, such as the Michigan Child Collaborative Care Program (MC3), Deliberative Engagement of Communities in Decisions about Resources (DECIDERS), and others.

Poverty Solutions and U-M’s Ginsberg Center are now working to share resources and data with this network in Lake County, and look forward to continuing our connection to this community and committed network of individuals working to prevent and alleviate poverty.