The Rural Community Living Development (RCLD) project is a knowledge translation grant funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). RTC:Rural staff have partnered with the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL) to develop and implement a peer-mentoring training with and for Centers for Independent Living (CILs) that will prepare CIL staff to work on community development activities in rural areas. This training will help CIL staff to identify community needs and develop sustainable groups to solve community challenges. The project’s aim is to help CILs across the country connect with community partners to better serve people in rural communities.
In October 2020, RTC:Rural Project Director Rayna Sage presented on RCLD progress-to-date to attendees of the 2020 APRIL Conference as part of a talk on “Strategies for Rural Outreach and Networking,” where she explained how the project shifted due to the current pandemic.
“We planned on being in a community, actually in a number of communities, to use community development strategies like coalition building and partnering with diverse groups to address issues around community living for people with disabilities – but COVID – so we shifted gears,” Sage said. “So we shifted gears to bring together a team, a development team, from across the U.S. to build this Peer-to-Peer Mentoring curriculum.”
We spoke to several of our partners about their thoughts at this stage of the project:
- Christina Holtzclaw, Assistant Director for Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living;
- Brian Hollander, Program Manager for Independent Living Resource Center of the Tri-Counties;
- Dori Tempio, Director of Community Outreach & Consumer Rights for Able South Carolina,
- and Brianna Ash, Master’s of Social Work Intern, also for Able South Carolina.
CIL partners from across the United States join weekly brainstorm video conference calls with RTC:Rural staff on curriculum content topics ranging from outreach strategies to community values. Partners bring Independent Living (IL) feedback from different communities, and also collect thoughts from stakeholder groups – such as IL consumers, the mental health community, and various service providers – to bring various perspectives into the developing materials.
“You guys are great at making people feel like they can share their opinion. You’re never like ‘Oh, Bri is just an intern, her opinion doesn’t matter.’ It creates a sense of community that can translate into what the finished product is supposed to be,” said Brianna Ash.
Christina Holtzclaw, who also co-presented with Sage at the APRIL Conference, shared how outreach has changed for her during the pandemic.
“I do outreach anyways, but COVID has put the brakes on some of those things. Zoom has helped,” Holtzclaw said, sharing that in some ways online software meetings have “leveled the playing field” for some people who have significant transportation barriers, like the Blind community.
“I think I thought my outreach was going further than it was. I wasn’t reaching marginalized populations the way I thought I was,” she said, sharing as one example that she’d recently reached out to the local NAACP organization and discovered they had not heard of her CIL.
Other RCLD partners also noted that rural outreach and engagement strategies will need to change, and pointed to the acceleration of some of those strategies from the ongoing COVID-crisis. However, this highlighted some of the barriers to rural as well.
“I think we’ll see a lot more prioritization on the needs of rural communities that the quarantine, and this project, illustrated and brought into the light,” said Brian Hollander. “The fact that rural communities tend to get forgotten in providing services in any region—like the digital divide. That’s a priority.” He also shared several example solutions of getting people to events, like partnering with paratransit to give people rides, or providing methods for people to call in to a meeting that could be used to get more voices to the table during community planning.
Even if community-level solutions are found to reduce barriers, many consumers will still need assistance connecting to those resources on an individual level.
“Rural communities are going to struggle a bit with the shift to online. It’s expensive—computers at a personal level are expensive, unless your work pays for it,” said Brianna Ash.
But all partners recognized the importance of getting more people, from fellow service providers to consumers, to participate in both community engagement efforts and to provide feedback on the training, despite potential barriers. Holtzclaw shared that her center has been recently working with mental health providers, unhoused consumers, jail staff and parole officers more than they ever had in the past. Ash talked about how although all rural communities are different (something she has learned having lived on military bases in rural areas across the country), getting consumers in those rural communities to talk openly about their struggles is the key to getting needs met. Hollander shared about his center’s goal of forging connections with another provider who has an established relationship in a remote community in his service area.
“When dealing with community engagement, it’s instrumental to include the ideas and strategies of stakeholders,” said Dori Tempio. “This is essential because stakeholders can give you ideas and look at community outreach and engagement from a different perspective. With their feedback we can accomplish a lot more than we can even imagine.”
As for the final product, partners shared that they are optimistic that the curriculum will be a beneficial tool to help CIL staff plan to outreach in their communities, and despite the distinct needs and culture of individual rural communities, all will be able to find something useful from the materials.
“I would like this to be a model for centers across the U.S.,” said Hollander. “I would like to see partnerships between CILs around this curriculum, and I would like to see in-person training taking place as people who built the curriculum go around training other CILs.”
The RCLD project is funded through 2024. For more information about the project or to learn about how you or your organization can get involved, please contact Rayna Sage at email@example.com