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Tight times bring service agencies together

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GREENPORT – Raising awareness, fostering collaboration, improving services. These were the themes for the first Interagency Awareness Day (IAAD) held Thursday, March 18, at Columbia-Greene Community College. The event drew 225 human services professionals representing 67 agencies in Columbia and Greene counties and the Greater Capitol Region.

The goal of the IAAD, as stated in the conference program, was to “strengthen the working relationships between various agencies during these times of limited resources and challenging economic situations…. [W]e can help residents of Columbia and Greene counties improve the quality of life by increasing awareness and access to services in their respective communities.”

Two years in the planning, the half-day program was modeled after a similar one in Saratoga County, according to Bonnie-Jo Westendorf of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia County and IAAD co-chairperson. Expecting representatives from about 25 agencies to attend in this initial attempt, Ms. Westendorf greeted the much larger than expected audience with, “Isn’t this awesome!” That so many professionals attended “indicates the need for this event,” she said.

Extension staff members Karen Mort and Bruce Robertson attended the Saratoga annual event a few years ago and came back with the desire to replicate it here. Ms. Mort spearheaded the effort that led to a steering committee of agencies that helped organize the conference, a group that included: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Greene County, the Columbia County Department of Health, the Columbia Healthcare Consortium, Columbia Opportunities, Inc., Columbia Memorial Hospital and Healthy Weight Initiative.

Roy Brown, chairman of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors, welcomed attendees. Making note of the difficult economic climate and increasing need for services, Mr. Brown said that “collaboration is essential” and stressed the “importance of the community working together.”

County health director Nancy Winch, the other IAAD co-chairperson, introduced the keynote speaker for the morning’s event, Dr. Richard Daines, state commissioner of health. Dr. Daines complimented the IAAD organizers for holding a “great event that brings people together.” He made note of the importance of county level public health delivery in addressing such difficult health care problems as the H1N1 virus.

Dr. Daines went on to discuss the obesity crisis in the state and country, which affects 25-35% of children, according to some estimates. He urged support for the tax on “sugary beverages” proposed in the 2010-11 State Budget, citing the success of similar taxes in reducing tobacco consumption. Dr. Daines further noted that the $450 million in revenue that the tax is expected to generate will be used to reduce the level of funding cuts to healthcare programs. The “miserable” budget picture constrains the health department’s ability to fund new or innovative services, but working to cut obesity is “something we can do to increase health now,” he said.

Other initiatives that the state Department of Health is hoping to pursue include development of an incentive program to encourage young doctors to work in “physician deprived” areas as well as efforts to promote greater collaboration among regional health care providers, similar to a model developed in the northern part of the state.

Ms. Westerdorf concluded the formal program saying that the IAAD planners were meeting right after the session to start planning next year’s IAAD, and she hoped that audience members would be on hand for that and subsequent year’s programs. She also reminded representatives from the participating agencies to complete a form about their agency’s’ services. The information will be used to compile a directory to promote greater awareness of programs and services.

During the second portion of the morning, attendees visited the exhibit area, where each of the 67 participating agencies had information booths. As a reporter mingled with attendees in the exhibit hall, there was a clear sense of camaraderie and enthusiasm. Several people commented that they thought this was a great opportunity to increase their knowledge of the services delivered by other agencies.

“Today’s outcome far exceeded our most desired expectations, “ said Bruce Robertson, an IAAD planner and Cooperative Extension spokesperson. “Not only did we host four times the number of agencies we hoped to see at the outset, representatives of those agencies unanimously agreed it was an unexpected if not unprecedented opportunity to make connections and expand program opportunities.”

Mr. Robertson said he expected that residents of Columbia and Greene counties would benefit from having local social service agencies communicate with each other more effectively.

We are “just thrilled,” said Ms. Westendorf after the event. She said there was “no doubt” in her mind that there will be a second IAAD next year.

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