HEAL reorganizing, closing office

Vicky Newman-News-Herald

At a time when many nonprofit organizations are struggling to survive, the Health and Education Alliance of Loudon County will be closing its office here soon and the organization will no longer have a paid executive director.

Debbie Henry, who has served as HEAL's executive director for eight years, said the board voted Tuesday to go to an all-volunteer board and organization. The action came after HEAL learned of the loss, of $35,000 in funding from a Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws federal grant.

"That loss was a killer. Two years ago, we lost a $100,000 grant," Henry said. "We wrote grants to replace it, but didn't get funded."

"It is very unfortunate, but strictly a financial situation," Melisa Fuhrmeister, HEAL board member, said.

Teresa Ward-Keenan, HEAL board president, said the board learned in January the EUDL grant would not be renewed and the current funds provided through the EUDL grant would cease June 30.

"Businesses in our county, state and nation are struggling financially," Ward-Keenan said. "We all have to think outside the box, be responsible with our resources, and stay focused on our mission. The programs that run through HEAL are important to Loudon County and additional funding sources are being explored. No one said the journey would be easy, but we are committed and will stay the course."

HEAL, doing business as the Loudon County Health Improvement Council, is a nonprofit, public health agency. The organization was established in 1994 through an initiative from the state. The HEAL mission is to improve the wellness of children and families in Loudon County.

HEAL has been a driving force behind several programs administered in Loudon County and Lenoir City schools, such as the P3 (Positive Peer Pressure) program to foster leadership among youth, and Imagination Library.

Begun by Dolly Parton in 1966 to benefit the children of her home county in Sevierville, the Imagination Library became so popular that, in 2000, Parton decided to make the program available for any community that was willing to partner with her to support it locally.

"Imagination Library is one of our strongest programs," Henry said of the effort that provides a free age-appropriate book to preschool children. The Loudon County organization was among the first to implement the program in 2004. Henry said Imagination Library serves 1,282 children at present and another 30 or 40 are about to be registered.

"We have graduated 1,719 from the program since we started," Henry said.

An agency or organization will be sought to take over the Imagination Library program, Henry said. HEAL also sponsors a tobacco prevention program, Med Minders, a resource directory and Lunch N Learn programs, which were started through the health department. Also operated under the HEAL umbrella are National Night Out, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Task Force and the Substance Abuse Coalition.

Funding for the Substance Abuse Coalition was discontinued more than two years ago. TPPTF is administered through the Office of Coordinated School Health in Loudon County school districts.

Nonprofit programs are being hard hit by funding cutbacks at every level. In addition to federal grants, HEAL has received funding from Loudon County Commission, United Way of Loudon County and Good Neighbors Shoppe.

"HEAL has been blessed with the financial support of our county government, United Way, the Good Neighbor Shoppe, civic groups and community members," Ward-Keenan said. "We need their support to continue. We would welcome additional business partnerships and also welcome their support of our fundraiser later this year."

Ward-Keenan said the restructuring could not be avoided.

"With the loss of the $35,000 EUDL grant, it was imperative that HEAL go to an all-volunteer organization. As such, all monies go entirely to programs. Before the end of the grant, we plan to relocate to a small office for our volunteers," she said. ""Almost every county in Tennessee has a Health Improvement Council and the majority operates on a volunteer basis."

She said HEAL board members have contacted several counties in East Tennessee to gather information regarding successes and failures within their councils. The board is considering those experiences as a new model is created for HEAL.