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Organizers continue efforts as Grand Challenge contenders

Dr. Ronnie Chu, University of Alabama at Birmingham professor Janelle Chiasera, PhD, and a team from UAB hosted an open meeting for the Alabama HOPE Project, the working title for their contender in UAB’s Grand Challenge Program. The project is one of six finalists that could be awarded $5 million in funding over the course of five years. The Alabama HOPE team will create community hubs, which will act as one-stop shops to meet the needs of community members in the healthcare, education and community and economic development spheres.

The overall goal is to meet the needs to students in the area to encourage and prepare them for careers in healthcare, when they will hopefully return to the area, thus meeting the need for rural healthcare providers. They also aim to improve the economy of rural West Alabama.

The open meeting served as an opportunity for the team to meet with community leaders and members to assess the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and resources available in the Demopolis-area, where one of the hubs is meant to be placed in order to service all of Marengo County. A second hub is planned for Birmingham, as well.

“That’s why we had the meeting this past week, to get all the information together,” Chu said.

Participants were split into three groups initially to discuss three main factors of the grant: economic and community development, education and healthcare. However, the groups eventually overlapped topics as they discussed how to benefit the community.

“All three groups were doing the same thing. All three big points were implemented in all three big groups,” he said.

According to Chu, some things discussed by community members included how to raise ACT scores, businesses accepting apprentices and fun activities in the county.

Some participants brought up ideas that have been explored already but did not have the desired impact, which Chu said they could revisit to find why it didn’t work. Others suggested things that the Alabama HOPE team were already considering including in the final grant proposal, but offered more information that what they had.

The meeting’s purpose was also to energize and engage the community, and participants met that need.

“I firmly believe that real challenge in the rural community must be authentic and come from within. We just have to all get the right people at the table that are ready to get their hands dirty and work,” said J.J. Wedgeworth, who was representing both the University Charter School and the University of West Alabama in Livingston, following the meeting.

The information obtained from the open meeting will be applied once the grant is funded. After the five years are up, the Alabama HOPE team will seek alternative funding to extend the project. Chu said the next step is community leaders sending letters of support to the president of UAB.

As one of the final grant proposals being considered, the Alabama HOPE Project already received $30,000 in order to cover the costs necessary for creating their full proposal, such as hosting community meetings, research, marketing and travel.

Meetings discussing topics like hub assessments and proposal development are taking place at UAB to finalize the grant application. Full proposals are due at the end of January, and the winning grant will be announced at the start of May.

(This article originally appeared in the Wednesday, January 2 issue of the Demopolis Times.)