Jackson Helps Citizens Connect for the Common Good
Nonprofits garner great community engagement.
Jackson has been known for being well connected since the 1800s, as it was the site of railroad systems linking major markets north and south as well as east and west.
That feeling of connectedness endures today and not just because of location and infrastructure, says Dave Bratcher, president of the STAR Center, Inc., which serves people of all ages with any form of disability.
“Jackson has turned into the hub for nonprofits, serving all parts of West Tennessee,â€ he says. “We have a very strong nonprofit community here. The citizens at large are very supportive of all of us.”
The Jackson Area Nonprofit Network includes 50 or more groups that address affordable housing, homelessness, hunger, adult education, disability services, youth needs, aging, legal aid and more.
“I feel like we have a very caring, compassionate communityâ€ says Lisa Tillman, executive director of the Regional Inter-Faith Association (RIFA), which targets hunger in the community. “There are lots and lots of nonprofits in Jackson, and many of us work together and collaborate.”
Here’s a look at three of Jackson’s larger nonprofit organizations.
Boys & Girls Club of Jackson
The Boys & Girls Club of Jackson, Inc. has grown to five sites, four in Madison County and one in Haywood County. Last year, the organization served more than 1,300 youth ages 5-18, mostly through after school and summer programs.
The club provides targeted curriculums to help young people reach their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens. Focus areas include leadership, service, financial literacy, holistic fitness and drama education as well as gang, alcohol and drug prevention.
The organization, which is in search of “a gently used bus,â€ also serves more children in foster care and makes them feel as safe and welcome as their peers with permanent homes, “not focusing on their backgrounds,â€ says Executive Director Sabrina Anderson.
“We try to help them understand who they need to be,â€ she says. “We want them to learn academically and learn proper social skills. We want to make sure our kids eat.”
With after-school programs, for example, the club provides a hot meal and a snack in partnership with Southwest Human Resource Agency.
In 2019, RIFA is on track to provide more than 500,000 meals to Jackson area residents facing hunger. Its soup kitchen serves hot lunches daily and two evening meals weekly. Its food bank distributes food to other nonprofit agencies in Madison County and seven surrounding counties. In any given year, volunteers contribute between 15,000 and 20,000 hours.
The Bus Stop Cafe, RIFA’s newest effort, launched in summer 2019 as an extension of its popular Snack Backpack program. During the school year, Snack Backpack provides more than 1,200 children at 14 elementary schools with six kid-friendly, easyto- prepare meals and two snacks.
But the need doesn’t end with the academic year, Tillman says. In partnership with the Southwest Human Resource Agency, RIFA brought its wheeled cafe into the four neighborhoods that received the highest number of snack backpacks. Youth who are 18 years and under could receive a free lunch Monday through Friday and a snack backpack for the weekend.
“We serve a lot of people who fall through the cracks, whether it is because of substance abuse, mental health issues or struggling to maintain any employment,â€ Tillman says. “We try to be a safe place to have a meal and a safe place to be.”
STAR Center, Inc.
Margaret and Chuck Doumitt founded the STAR Center, Inc. when their two children began losing their eyesight and available services were too far away. In 30-plus years, the organization has expanded its offerings but continues to serve people of all ages with any disability.
Such a broad mission brings challenges and opportunities, Bratcher says. It opened the doors to providing home care for people with disabilities, and, more recently, elderly residents who want to stay in their homes needed services that also create revenue. Most recently, in mid-2019, Tennessee contracted with the center to provide assistive technology services in 40 counties.
Increasing need for autism services and related family education is a big challenge.
“The area of autism is totally underserved statewide, and that is the case here as well,â€ Bratcher says. “We are trying to grow to meet the need, which is outpacing everything else in terms of disability services.”
The STAR Center continues to provide vocational and employment services, speech, music and customized behavior therapies, vision services and a learning lab for children struggling in school and adults with literacy gaps for 21 counties in West Tennessee.
Dancing with the STARS, an annual fundraiser, draws more than 600 people in October.