By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Project Connect Wood County is more than a one-day event. Project Connect provides direct services to people who are homeless or in poverty, or in danger of becoming homeless or in poverty.
The benefits accrue to the guests all year, and to the volunteers who make it happen.
“It’s very gratifying. I see people in the store, and they ask if we’re doing this again,” said volunteer Marisa Hutchinson. She’s happy that she can answer yes. And she’ll be there to help out again. “Once you volunteer,” she said, “you start planning for the next year.”
Planning for Project Connect gets started months in advance. About 30 people gathered for the kickoff meeting Thursday morning at St. Mark’s Church. The church will host Project Connect on Oct. 17 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Project Connect was started in 2013, launched by the Continuum of Care Wood County. It was spurred by concern about homelessness. But shelter insecurity has many dimensions. People also need food, sanitary products, mental health services, legal assistance, and haircuts.
Rhonda Stoner, a social worker with the Wood County Community Health Center, said she was surprised to see the change in people after they’d gotten their hair cut.
The guests reported just that made them feel so much better about themselves, she said.
Last year project volunteers cut the hair of 118 guests.
Those seeking help are not clients, they are guests, neighbors stopping over for a helping hand from other neighbors. “We approach everything from the aspect of hospitality,” said Erin Hachtel, one of the co-chairs for the event.
Each guest first talks with someone to determine what they and their families “need to be healthy, safe and secure,” Hachtel said.
Then they are assisted by a host who guides them through a maze of stations to help find just what they need most.
What brings them in varies. Last year, the biggest need was help getting through the holidays, Hachtel noted. That was the first time this was mentioned.
The survey of the top reason they came included seeking employment, desire for more education or training, stress management, legal assistance, mental health treatment, housing, and internet connectivity.
By having hosts and guest navigate the event together, Hachtel said, “we’re saying we’re all in this together. Let’s walk together to find what will help you and your family.”
In 2017, Project Connect helped 574 individuals from 278 households. More than 200 people volunteers and 52 providers and agencies set up shop.
During the day 235 bags of food were distributed. Also 44 people had their vision checked and 84 received blood pressure and blood sugar screenings. More than 200 hygiene kits were distributed, and 110 people were able to get birth certificates. The ability to get their birth certificates “was extremely well received,” said co-chair Felicia Otte.
“We hope they can get their needs met the day of the event,” Otte said.
That includes wholesome meals through the six-hour event as well as childcare.
But doing that takes a lot of volunteers the day of Project Connect and the weeks leading up to it. Service providers must be lined up. Donations solicited and collected.
Susan Clanton, of United Way, said that coats for kids as well as in adult plus sizes are always needed as are gloves. Donations can be dropped off at The Fringe Thrift Store in the Woodland Mall or at the United Way Office in downtown Bowling Green.
“Also,” added Hutchinson “pet food and supplies.”
We don’t want them to get rid of their pets, she said. Their pets are their loved ones, too.”
More information will be available at the project’s Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/ProjectConnectWoodCounty/