In July 2018, the Hogg Foundation awarded $4.5 million across six grantees of the Collaborative Approaches to Well-Being in Rural Communities (WRC) initiative. One grantee, Alliance for Greater Works, received funds to coordinate the initiative, and the other five—all in rural Texas counties—are using the funding to develop or build upon an existing collaborative to strengthen resilience, mental health and well-being in their communities.
The initiative seeks to address the community conditions that contribute to mental health disparities and the significant inequities that exist in Texas and leverage the power of inclusivity and shared decision-making to create and implement community-driven solutions. Because of these extensive initiative, each collaborative has been given three years to assess their community’s needs and assets, build new relationships and identify strategies that lead to better mental health for everyone in their community. The grantees are now in the second of these three years.
One of the five community collaboratives hails right here in the area. The Morris County Collaborative had its start as a community-led initiative organized by Ms. Margine Mims, a resident who continues to work tirelessly towards the betterment of her community. Now with the fiscal support of Northeast Texas Community College, the Collaborative is bringing together local service providers, government officials and community members to restore a sense of pride and hope throughout the county.
During World War II and shortly thereafter, a tubular steel plant operated by Lone Star Steel Company drew some 6,000 workers to Morris County. Although demographic and economic growth stagnated in the decades that followed, the small hub of households dependent on the plant would stay afloat until the late 1980s when a plunge in oil prices and rise in competitive foreign exports triggered layoffs by the thousands. In recent years, the county’s unemployment rate has hovered around 8.6 percent—twice that of the state. Recent notice of yet another layoff at the Lone Star mill coupled with the current devastation of Coronavirus continues to ravage the local economy.
The lack of development in Morris County has been greatly felt. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) County Health Rankings, which measures overall health outcomes across 242 Texas counties, place Morris County at 235, within the bottom five percent. Just one primary care physician in the area has services to offer—an unsustainable shortage that forces most of the 12,000 plus residents to travel either 45 miles to Longview or 80 miles to Tyler no matter the nature of the visit. Work commutes span similarly long distances for most.
This general sense of rural disconnect may explain why historically excluded minority, LGBTQ and non-religious populations struggle to make their voices heard. If times and spaces designated for coming together are scarce, the tasks of strengthening kinship and inspiring civic duty become far more formidable.
To address the lack of close ties between and within the communities of Morris County, the Collaborative plans on uniting medical facilities, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations and other stakeholders to develop community outreach efforts for high-risk and underrepresented individuals and groups.
“There is a rich history here,” says Tammy Heinz, Hogg Foundation program officer and consumer and family liaison. “The community members are strong and proud that they’ve survived in spite of many challenges.”
Such effective collaboration would be unprecedented—and, crucially, can’t happen without the cooperation and contributions of all community members. To bring them into the fold, the Morris County Collaborative approach will use community-based participatory research, town halls and community events. Before funding from the foundation was even secured, Morris County Collaborative leaders managed to bring 130 attendees to a town hall to discuss the program’s priorities—a meeting that resulted in a complete revision of their budget based on feedback.
“Our doors are open,” writes Beverly Austin, who handles the Collaborative’s public relations. “We have a lot to look forward to together and we need everyone’s perspective.”
A comprehensive survey of Morris County residents, conducted in 2019, provided the Collaborative with helpful insights into what is needed to productively move forward.