Julie Miller took the helm of Columbia County Community Connections a decade ago, and she’s seeing her vision for the organization become reality.
“I feel like I’m on track, put it that way,” said Miller, who became executive director of the nonprofit aimed at strengthening children and families. “It is really focused on how we can help young people be successful.”
When she began in October 2003, the organization, part of the Georgia Family Connection network, worked with a $50,000 budget and small staff. Now, Community Connections boasts an annual budget of nearly $1 million, much of which comes from grants, and a new location.
Miller and her staff worked out of a Harlem municipal building for several years until they moved into the Mary E. Sanders Community Center at the Harlem City Park in 2010. The group began moving into their larger location, the former Columbia County Health Department clinic at Euchee Creek, on Sept. 2.
The new building is leased from Columbia County. The county funded remodeling the building, which includes several offices, conference and meetings rooms and large training rooms. The training rooms allow the organization to host programs at its headquarters instead of always at outside locations.
“We are very grateful and very ecstatic to be in this building,” Miller said. “It’s beautiful. It’s just beautiful. Everything is bright and nice and clean, and just having the space is incredible.”
Betty Kelley is also enjoying a new space. Kelley is coordinator of the Community Connections Dream Academy, an after-school program for about 60 North Harlem Elementary School pupils.
The Dream Academy moved into the community center vacated by Miller and her staff. The pupils met last school year in the Harlem Senior Center, but they couldn’t decorate or personalize the space, which was also used by the seniors.
“We feel like it’s our home,” Kelley said. “It’s really more personalized. The children feel like it’s their space because we can leave their work up. ... We’re just really excited about it. The children are so excited.”
The Dream Academy is only one of many programs Community Connections offers to encourage students to succeed.
After-school programs at Harlem High and Grovetown High schools provide academic support and enrichment activities which led to students recovering 422 half-credits towards graduation last year.
“We genuinely believe that there’s this unbelievable capacity for young people to be whatever they want to me,” Miller said. “I just want them to have those opportunities, to see the world in a way that is full of possibilities.
“I want to share that vision. I want everybody to believe that we can help kids. It’s very important that we give them the start that they need.”
To ensure children don’t go hungry, the organization coordinated for 551 sacks of food to be sent home with pupils as part of Food 4 Kids. Community Connections coordinated with area churches and Action Ministries for The Smart Lunch, Smart Kids program that provided nearly 12,000 meals.
Miller said the Underage Drinking Prevention awareness campaign will be introduced to the public and schools soon.
The group doesn’t just help young people, but their families as well. The Family Resource and Evening Reporting Center, which opened early last year, is operated in coordination with Columbia County Juvenile Court to offer programs and treatment for troubled youth and their families.
A new grant, Miller said, funds the Strengthening Families program by offering treatment for juvenile offenders and their families as a way to keep juvenile offenders out of the Regional Youth Detention Center.
“The state’s goal is to reduce the percentage of youth going into the YDC,” Miller said. “This is a new grant and we’re very excited about being part of that and really helping families and kids figure out how to communicate better with each other and not get into that cycle (fighting and calling law enforcement).”
Community Con-nections will be offering Strengthening Families Program group leader training on Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The training, which normally costs about $7,000, is being funded by the group and participants are only asked to pay $20 to cover lunch and materials.
The training, Miller said, is appropriate for social workers, court-appointed guardian ad litems and others who work with children and families in a therapeutic way. To register, call Community Connections at (706) 650-5010.
Miller said she doesn’t see Community Connections doing anything except growing and helping more children and families. She’s always on the hunt for more grant funding and hopes to continue the mission.
“You do have to help the families, they are key,” Miller said. “They are the core unit of our society. Our families have to be healthy and productive. That is what we’re trying to accomplish and giving people the told and the support they need to figure it out.”