In the aftermath of the public health emergency brought on by the global pandemic, many local community service organizations are still feeling the effects wrought by COVID-19. While demand for their services increased dramatically during the pandemic, their income often suffered as a result of the economic downturn.
But there’s hope on the horizon.
In March 2022, as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners approved $1.5 million in State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) to respond to the public health emergency.
“In acknowledgment of the significant challenges which non-profits have faced and in recognition of the critical services that they provide, the county accepted ARPA funding applications from eligible nonprofit organizations,” explained Okaloosa County Public Information Officer Nick Tomecek. “The purpose of this grant program is to provide financial support to eligible non-profit agencies that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and are actively providing critical public services to the citizens of Okaloosa County. Funds may be used for programs, services and capital expenditures. The county may also consider awards to mitigate financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The county received 35 ARPA non-profit applications. To choose which agencies would receive assistance, it formed a non-profit funding review committee made up of county staff with expertise in grant funding to review applications.
Among the 20 organizations selected to receive funding is Safe Connections, a non-profit organization formerly known as the Judge Ben Gordon, Jr. Family Visitation Center. Founded in 1997 at the behest of local child advocates and other concerned citizens, the agency provides
supervised visitation and custody exchanges for children affected by abuse, neglect, and domestic violence.
Safe Connections received a capital grant of $433,701, the largest of the ARPA funding requests. The money helped the organization purchase a building to provide services in Fort Walton Beach.
“We are incredibly happy to have received this assistance,” said Carole Antoon, a case manager at the Fort Walton Beach location. The organization has offices in Crestview and DeFuniak Springs as well.
Because court-ordered visitation and custody exchanges are often fraught with tension and can potentially lead to violence, Antoon said it’s extremely important that the meetings be properly supervised in a secure location.
“It’s really exciting that we’re going to be able to provide these kids with a safe place where they can have these visits,” she said. “We love these kids – that’s why we do what we do.”
For more information about the program, visit the Safe Connections website at https://www.safe-connections.org or call 850-609-1850.
As the attached charts indicate, the non-profits selected for funding provide a wide spectrum of services to a broad array of Okaloosa County residents. Those services include food and emergency financial assistance, mental health counseling, childcare, veteran services, healthcare and legal services, housing assistance, services for children with special needs, and educational programs.
Shelter House, Inc., a local non-profit that provides emergency housing and other support services to domestic violence victims, was selected to receive a $50,000 operating grant. The agency also serves as the only certified rape crisis center in Okaloosa and Walton counties. According to the agency’s executive director, Rosalyn Wik, the ARPA funding is earmarked to enhance the partnership between the agency and the local judicial system for the benefit of domestic violence survivors.
“Funds will help provide full-time Court Services Advocates in both Okaloosa County courthouses to assist with protective orders and court services related to domestic violence,” Wik explained. “This program was started in 2020 in response to an increase in requests for domestic violence protective orders and heightened lethality of these cases during the pandemic.”
Wik said the advocates are co-located full-time in the County Clerk’s office at the courthouses in Crestview and Fort Walton Beach and will be available Monday through Friday during court hours.
“Clerk of Court J.D. Peacock and the Okaloosa County court system have been incredible partners of Shelter House,” Wik added. “We are thrilled to be able to expand our court services program through Okaloosa County ARPA funds this coming year.”
For more information about Shelter House, Inc., visit the agency’s website at shelterhousenwfl.org, or call 850-243-1201. The agency also staffs a 24-hour domestic violence hotline at 850-863-4777, and a sexual assault hotline at 850-226-2027.