New Hogg Foundation Grant Will Focus on Well-Being in Rural Texas Communities

Head east about 30 minutes outside of Austin and you’ll enter Bastrop County, marked by the skeletons of a once-lush pine forest. The lifeless trees are a stark reminder of just one of the multiple natural disasters the region has faced in recent years, from massively destructive wildfires to severe and recurrent flooding. Bastrop is just one of the five communities that the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health is hoping to help heal with a new grant initiative. The Hogg Foundation, which is housed within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at UT, announced on July 11 that it is giving $4.5 million to six organizations to support well-being in rural Texas communities.

The recipients of the grant funding are Bastrop County Cares, Community Action Corporation of South Texas, Northeast Texas Community College, Stephen F. Austin State University, and Victoria County Public Health Department. All organizations were awarded $410,000 each and serve rural Texas communities that deal with factors such as natural disasters, severe poverty, poor health, low economic development, and historically marginalized populations. A sixth organization, Alliance for Greater Works, received $2.45 million to help coordinate the efforts between organizations by helping the communities evaluate needs and strengths and identify what they are learning from the initiative.

This grant is the first aligned with the foundation’s new strategic direction, which aims to support and address mental health and well-being at the community level, building on top of their original focus of treating mental illness. Tammy Heinz, program officer for the Hogg Foundation and project lead for the grant, says they wanted to begin by focusing on communities and figuring out how to “develop environments that are conducive to resilient mental health and well-being.”

Heinz says they decided to begin in rural communities, recognizing that factors that contribute to negative mental health are often amplified there, as well as a lack of resources. In Texas, suicide rates are roughly 15 percent higher in rural counties as opposed to urban ones, and although rural counties make up nearly 70 percent of the state, in 2015, more than 70 percent of counties were without a psychiatrist. In addition, Heinz says they knew their target organization likely wouldn’t have the resources or experiences to write a grant proposal, so after receiving more than 60 letters of interest, the foundation sent an experienced consultant to work with the 20 finalists draft their proposals. She says they hope to continue this process to create more equal opportunity in the future.

“We have quite a spectrum of grantees,” Heinz says. “We have everything from a very savvy university that is doing some community collaborative work to a very small community in South Texas who really hasn’t started meeting at all and didn’t have much in the way of resources to even apply.”

Over the period of the three-year grant, Heinz says they have almost no restrictions on how the funding should be carried out—it’s about the communities coming together and deciding what they need to be successful. An important part of this, Heinz says, is having the whole community represented in order to get an accurate picture of their needs.

“We’re looking at all people who have been historically excluded, whether they’re excluded due to geography, or poverty, or race, or gender, or whatever the issues are—we want these communities to take a really hard look at who’s not there,” she says.

Heinz says that the process will differ from community to community, but they hope that all will achieve in bringing groups together and learning from it.

“What I’m really hoping for is for communities to do some healing around some of the tensions and divides that have been there for years and figure out what they need to do to move beyond,” she says. “I think each of the communities that we’ve selected is very hopeful about that and ready to put in some sincere hard work to make that happen.”

Recently, Heinz went out to visit one of the grantees, Bastrop County Cares, a nonprofit that works as an intermediary agency to tackle community issues. She acknowledged the existing resiliency of the community after past natural disasters, but also the need to heal and bring people together.

“Our county is really spread out geographically, so there’s a lot of mini-communities left out of decision making,” says Krystal Grimes, resilience director at Bastrop County Cares. “If all people from different communities are having a greater voice, and then if something were to happen, we know we can come together and we have an existing coalition to address whatever needs to be done.”

Heinz says they plan on staying in and working with these communities for several years to come, beyond the set period of the three-year grant. She hopes after that time, they can evaluate how best to move forward, which could include awarding more funding.

“I really think that our role is going to be there just to be a support,” Heinz says. “We’re not coming in with all the answers by any means. We are just hoping that our money can help spark some change.”

Photo via Flickr by Roy Niswanger

 
 
 

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