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Arkansas County Builds Wide-Spanning Service Hub

Crittenden County, Ark., which is home to roughly 50,000 people, is trying to create a one-stop shop for its residents to find services, ranging from government to nonprofits to local churches.

Crittenden County, Ark., is just west across the state line and the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., but the jurisdiction is much smaller than the city, with just shy of 50,000 residents and a majority of rural areas.

Its close proximity to a much larger jurisdiction aside, officials in the county say that residents there can struggle with transportation, which makes it difficult to take care of other basic needs, including food and health care. As such, Crittenden has the highest rate of food insecurity in Arkansas, making service organizations absolutely vital for some residents — from food banks to public libraries to government agencies. A challenge, however, is that like in most places nationwide, groups there operate in their own silos.

A new largely web-based project in Crittenden County, however, aims to change this. It’s called Connect Crittenden, and the way it works is relatively simple. Users who live in the county simply enter their ZIP code on the home page, and then a list of services in their area come up. Take 72301 in West Memphis, Ark., for example, which is one of the area’s population centers — entering that ZIP code into Connect Crittenden brings up 1,706 social programs in or near the area, divided into categories such as food delivery, help paying for housing, transit, financial education, workplace rights and many more.

The project was built as a collaboration between state and local gov — the Arkansas Department of Health and Crittenden County, to be exact — with the help of a federal grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That money helped hire full-time staff to work on the project, including Connect Crittenden Project Manager Kendra Phillips, herself a native of West Memphis.

“We’re in a small town,” Phillips said. “All organizations are having a hard time reaching people right now … but with this, you can make sure everything your organization does or is doing — even a free backpack giveaway, once a year — can be listed on this website.”

What then happens is that a resident of Crittenden County goes to a local organization that has signed up, such as Goodwill for example, and the workers at Goodwill tell them about the site. The user then logs on and finds other services. But the hub site is not just for residents. Leaders and staffers of the organizations on it can use its search features to find other service groups, be it for a collaboration or for referring the people they work with to them.

It is in every sense a centralized hub for the 50,000 or so people who live in the area, and that population number is part of what makes it unique — it is relatively rare in government circles for jurisdictions of that size to successfully centralize so many different service groups in their areas. Phillips said she hopes Connect Crittenden can help other small counties with similar issues, too.

“We all deal with the same challenges and the same struggles,” she said. “I hope other counties will apply [to the CDC] and find ways to implement strategies, to help people within their communities. That’s what the work is about — how can we better the place we live and make better outcomes for our children.”

But just having the portal wasn’t the only fix here. Once it was built — powered as it is by software from findhelp — the county and others working on it needed to spread the word to the community’s service groups. If they didn’t sign up and enter their information on the platform, the project would not be effective.

So, Connect Crittenden also worked with Tawana Bailey, the director of community outreach for West Memphis. Bailey and Phillips brainstormed ways to get the word out, and they have now done everything from putting a path to it on the county’s official website, to launching a wide-spanning social media campaign, mostly on Facebook. With the digital divide also being a challenge for traditionally underserved areas like Crittenden County, they also used in-person events to spread the word about their work. Bailey works out of West Memphis City Hall, and she said people can even come find her there, and she’ll help them use the site.

And the project is still growing, adding more service providers and trying to reach more community members all the time. In fact, Bailey said a big kickoff for the site is coming up during early August, when they plan to partner with a back-to-school program to let parents know about Connect Crittenden.

“We just can’t wait really to see the full potential in a couple of months,” Bailey said.

Arkansas State Rep. Deborah Ferguson is elected to serve a district that includes part of Crittenden County, and she praised the CDC grant for making this project possible, noting that the tech platform, collaborative elements and every other part of it is ultimately in the service of better health outcomes for Crittenden residents.

Ferguson’s husband is a practicing doctor in the area, and she said patients often come to him with other challenges — from transportation to food access — and having a centralized hub like this one to show them really makes it easier for him to get them connected with the help they need. It’s a far cry from the old way of doing things, when doctors, churches and food banks had to pull out address books to read phone numbers for other services to those they work with.

“A lot of the challenge, though, is just making sure all the different community partners are aware of the site,” Ferguson said. “That they sign up for the site, and actually go to the site.”

If that happens, it could mean big things not only for Crittenden County but other counties across the country facing similar sets of challenges.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.