Philanthropy Southwest member Avedis Foundation is tackling the complicated issue of social health deterioration in its small community of Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma by investing in one simple idea: the power of relationships.
Avedis Foundation is a private foundation with assets of approximately $100 million from the sale of a local hospital. Its mission is to improve the health, wellness and quality of life for the people of Pottawatomie County and its surrounding communities. With high rates of poverty, domestic violence, teen pregnancy and high school dropout, Avedis Foundation had many opportunities for investment. As they learned, sometimes a seemingly rudimentary concept can have enormous impact once put into motion.
Rewind a few years ago: Avedis Foundation CEO Michelle Briggs attended a meeting at her Chamber of Commerce where she heard about Community Renewal, an innovative program out of Shreveport, Louisiana that was improving social health, reducing crime and increasing social connections in local neighborhoods. The program was achieving its ambitious goals by focusing on bringing together partners and neighbors to restore the foundation of safe and caring communities. Immediately, she knew she wanted to bring the program to Pottawatomie County.
In October 2015 Avedis Foundation launched Community Renewal in Pottawatomie County with a keen focus on improving relationships in their neighborhoods. The program there is rooted in the fundamental belief that all societies rest upon a foundation of meaningful relationships and that when those relationships are strong, communities thrive, and when they are weak, communities disintegrate. Their goal is simple: to place caring back in neighborhoods and connect people around the one thing everyone has in common: the capacity to care about other human beings.
Community Renewal’s approach is three-pronged. The first component, the We Care. Team, is comprised of neighbors who stand up and say “I’m a caring person and I want to do my part to care for other people.” Membership requirements are minimal and easy to adopt. After volunteers join, they are given a sign to put in their yard that simply says “We Care,” identifying them as part of the movement in the community.
The next component, Block Leaders, are "We Care. Team" members willing to give a little more time to help neighbors connect in their neighborhoods. Block Leaders might plan block parties, take meals to sick or home-bound neighbors, share garden produce, or create other opportunities for support, fun and engagement in their community.
The final component, Friendship Houses, are intended to support neighborhoods that are particularly distressed. Volunteers and key partners build the houses and Community Renewal trained staff and their families live in them. The Friendship Houses provide afterschool, GED and job training programs. The goal is to rebuild the caring infrastructure of the neighborhood by working with local children, youth and adults. In other words: to reestablish trust among neighbors and within the community.
To date, Community Renewal in Pottawatomie County boasts 1,400 We Care. Team members, 90 Block Leaders and its goal is to have 8 Friendship Houses in 4 target neighborhoods. The initiative has partnered with schools, tribes and the local government. It has even replaced neighborhood watch programs. As Executive Director Brandon Dyer put it: “Oftentimes, [people in the community] don’t need a police officer, they just need a neighbor.”
The name Avedis means “one who brings glad tidings; the bearer of good news.” For the people and neighborhoods of Pottawatomie County, The Avedis Foundation’s investment in relationships – and Community Renewal – has done just that.