LEWISTOWN - The Human Services Department of Mifflin and Juniata counties plans to develop community benchmarks in response to the 2013 Community Needs Assessment, said Allison Fisher, human services director.
Future funding for area agencies will be based around these benchmarks and meeting the emerging priorities as listed in the needs assessment, Fisher said.
"The United Way and this agency provide funding to human service agencies and starting in 2014 we will ask them to tie their funding requests to the emerging priorities," Fisher said. "We want agencies to ask 'What programs do we have that already address these issues and how can we improve them? If we don't have a program that addresses it, what do we, as an organization, need to do?'"
Sometimes it's easy to get invested in what an agency has been doing for a long time, but it's important to know where the community is, Fisher said. These benchmarks will encourage agencies and organizations to continue moving forward and expanding their programs, she said.
So far, the human services department has identified 16 emerging priorities. Examples include: improving learning opportunities and household education levels; expanding workforce training opportunities; increasing collaborative opportunities for funding; and expanding job and economic diversity.
The key to meeting these priorities, Fisher said, is community collaboration. Once the needs assessment is available for publication, the department plans to hold a number of community meetings designed as think tanks to address the priorities and develop benchmarks, she said.
"There's no way that three or four of us sitting in a room can say, 'We know we've been successful when we've reached such-and-such a number,'" Fisher said. "We'd rather work with expert groups in our community to reach realistic benchmarks and goals. We want that dialogue and that opportunity for education."
The meetings will be open to people involved with human service agencies as well as the general public. The more people involved, the more creativity there will be with more individualized responses to the emerging priorities, Fisher said.
In response to the previous needs assessment conducted in 2005, the human services department and other area agencies created the Coalition of Hopes, a one-stop shop for people who need assistance with housing, electricity, utilities, heat and spending.
This year, if Fisher had to pick one outcome from the needs assessment she said it would be a solution targeting the educationally under-served children in the area. Roughly 50 percent of children in Mifflin and Juniata counties are not being reached by early education services, she said.
"I have my wishes of course, but I would love to see us have some cohesive way of reaching those kids we aren't reaching with early education," Fisher said. "I think there are great preschool programs out there, but half of our kids aren't being reached by them. So they're already starting school behind. It used to be that kindergarten was where you learn your colors and write your name, but you have to know all that before kindergarten now."
The difficult part is reaching the kids that depend on family members for childcare, Fisher said. That's not to say these children are in a bad childcare situation, but they are in an uninformed one, she said.
"We need to somehow be connecting with the caregivers who are not in any formalized setting to help them understand how important exposure to books and learning is before kindergarten," Fisher said. "I think we can take a lot of the programs we already have going and get creative around them and find ways to expand them or create all new ones. We have to do a better job educating our kids."
Information about the community meetings and the 2013 Community Needs Assessment will be posted online at www.co.mifflin.pa.us/HumanServices or www.co.juniata.pa.us/departments/human-services/ as it becomes available.