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Harvest Foundation grants focus on 2020 census in Martinsville-Henry County

LEFT TO RIGHT: Dewitt House, senior program officer at Harvest, Henry County Administrator Tim Hall; Leon Towarnicki, manager for the City of Martinsville, Philip Wenkstern, executive director of the United Way, Sheryl Agee, impact officer and team leader at The Harvest Foundation and Michael Scales, United Way president

MARTINSVILLE – The Harvest Foundation has awarded two grants with one ultimate goal: To help area residents realize the importance of their participation in the 2020 census.

The United Way of Henry County & Martinsville and Henry County each has been awarded a $10,000 PUP! (Pick Up the Pace!) grant by Harvest.

Both grants seek to spread information about the importance of taking part in the federal census, especially among people and neighborhoods that traditionally have not joined the headcount.

“With over $675 billion in federal funds annually distributed in addition to state funds (nationwide),” the impact of census counts can be profound locally, according to Henry County’s grant application.

By Census Day on April 1, every home in the nation will receive an invitation to take part in the 2020 census online, by phone or by mail, according to the website.

Participants will tell the Census Bureau where they live as of April 1, 2020.

Census figures collected every 10 years are used in reapportioning congressional seats, redistricting and distributing funds to support state, county and community programs including housing, education, transportation, employment, health care and public policy.

The data also is used in planning and implementing programs, helps in designing facilities for people with disabilities, the elderly and children, and shows how communities are changing.

Those figures can be critical in matters ranging from a new restaurant estimating its potential customer base to funding for local schools, according to Henry County Administrator Tim Hall.

However, nearly half of the populations of Henry County and Martinsville failed to take part in the last census in 2010.

The county’s average self-response rate that year was 57.23 percent and the city’s was 58.34 percent.

According to information from the U.S. Census Bureau, the most difficult populations to count in the census are children younger than 5, LGBTQ persons, people of color, low-income residents, renters and single-parent households.

Locally, census participation has lagged state, regional and local averages primarily in the West Side of Martinsville and the Carver and Ridgeway areas of Henry County, according to the grant applications.

Also, online participation is being encouraged this year and that could affect participation, according to Philip Wenkstern, executive director of the United Way of Henry County & Martinsville.

As a result, both localities’ governing bodies are partnering to distribute census information to encourage response and participation in the count.

To help accomplish that, the United Way will use its PUP! grant to primarily target the people who have been undercounted in the past.

It plans to hire a part-time “census engagement coordinator” who will focus on building a coalition of community-based organizations that work with and are trusted by people in the previously undercounted populations, according to Wenkstern.

The organizations will distribute information on the importance of taking part in the census.

At least one “census champion” at each organization will help customers navigate the census, and the coordinator will do some marketing with the local media.

Also, the United Way will aim to establish census completion points in libraries, churches, food banks and nonprofit organizations to help residents with the census process.

One such point will be at the VITA Tax Site in Leatherwood Crossing, which last year served more than 2,000 taxpayers.

The engagement coordinator will be located there, and Wenkstern said that site will help clients with the census as well as taxes.

Henry County received the other grant to educate the public on how the census affects funding distributed for schools, parks, law enforcement, public safety and other essential services, according to its grant application.

That will include hiring a part-time “spark plug” person to work with local civic clubs, schools, media and others to raise awareness of the importance of participating in the census.

That person will work through the West Piedmont Planning District Commission and serve both Henry County and City of Martinsville, the application states.

Hall and Wenkstern said the two positions will work together to avoid duplicating efforts.

In 2010, Henry County and Martinsville worked separately on the census, Hall said.

He added that this year local officials hope the partnership will reach more people and have a larger impact.

Hall, City Manager Leon Towarnicki and Wenkstern all stressed the importance of an accurate census count to the localities and said the PUP grants will help their efforts to increase participation.

“Every person matters because every person counted means the potential for more funding for our schools, our law enforcement and public safety, and our representation in Richmond and Washington,” Hall said. “This PUP grant will help us reach out and make the point that we need to count everybody.”

Towarnicki agreed, and added, “Quite simply, inaccurate or under-counting hurts our community in the long run. The PUP grant provides resources to help maximize the accuracy of our local census process.”

Wenkstern also noted that census information also impacts how much federal funding is allocated to each state for important programs and services such as transportation, SNAP, Head Start, Medicaid, CHIP, Pell grants, highway planning and construction, TANF and Section 8 housing.

“Ensuring a complete count on the 2020 Census is incredibly important as information gathered will have a dramatic impact on our community over the next decade,” he added. Sheryl Agee, impact officer and team leader for The Harvest Foundation, called the census a “true collaborative community event.”

“It’s a time to come together to better understand what our community looks like as well as the gaps and barriers that we have. Ensuring everyone is counted provides our community an opportunity to leverage available state and federal resources, affects how we plan for the future and even impacts our voice in government. We are excited to partner with the United Way, the city and the county to spread the word that the census is important and that everyone matters, so be counted,” she said.

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