Community Engagement: A New Priority

by Shanone Sport, Analyst, Department of Human Resources

“Henrico has set a priority for outreach and engagement to focus on how we communicate with our diverse, widespread citizens throughout the county.” Monica Smith-Callahan, Deputy County Manager of Community Affairs, recently shared those sentiments to describe the County’s strategic emphasis on community outreach. A newly restructured position for the county, the Deputy County Manager for Community Affairs fosters County relationships with governmental and nongovernmental organizations and collaborates across the community to assess and proactively respond to their needs.

When hired in February, Monica’s initial focus was on building connections with Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) to address student gaps and services beyond the classroom. With the County continuing to grow and become more diverse, the goal of the partnership was to provide all-encompassing support and services to Henrico students and families seeking resources from the County. However, her priorities soon shifted to support the County’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In March, the Community Affairs office partnered with Henrico County Government employees, HCPS and the County’s Advocate for the Aging to establish four outreach call centers to assist residents with COVID-19 questions and concerns. Employees from across the organization stepped in to lead and provide outstanding customer service and support to Henrico citizens often problem-solving and finding creative solutions to meet their critical needs.

The outreach call centers are still active, and many Henrico residents have benefitted from those services, including the County’s older residents. In April, the County’s Advocate for the Aging partnered with the Community Affairs office to launch an “EngAGing Conversations” telephone reassurance program, which offers friendly telephone contact for older adults who feel lonely or socially isolated. Telephone reassurance volunteers contact older adults on a regular basis and share resources. The program has garnered positive support from the public, and it is one of the many ways that Monica and her team have collaborated across the organization to reach out to the community.

The Community Affairs office partnered with the Police Division and the Division of Fire in May to distribute COVID care kits to over 20,000 homes in Henrico County using GIS mapping and data to identify communities in need. With the support of public safety employees, 600 volunteers canvassed neighborhoods over the course of three weekends to distribute care kits across the County. The Division of Fire supported similar efforts by distributing face coverings and care kits to residents in apartment complexes, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Monica is proud of how the County has responded to the pandemic, and she believes that the COVID-19 community engagement efforts have fostered a spirit of innovation in our organization. “We now know how we can innovate and create on the fly. This crisis has showed us that we can literally do anything if we all band together… and we did.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique opportunities for the County to respond to the growing needs of Henrico residents. In recent months, Monica’s office has established public-private partnerships with numerous community organizations to mobilize food services, care kits and provide transportation to citizens which she believes is “nothing short of amazing.” Henrico County Public Schools, non-profits, and various community organizations have also supported the community to include donating building space to store food donations and providing financial support where needed. The COVID-19 pandemic has forged new connections between the Community Affairs office and HCPS. Monica’s office recently collaborated with HCPS to mobilize food support to Henrico families and older residents during the pandemic. She hopes to continue partnering with HCPS to “talk through what the new normal will be” and assess the future needs of HCPS students.

The global pandemic has given Monica fresh insight and opportunities to reflect on her current role. Moving forward, she hopes to focus on cross-functional collaboration between departments, creating new partnerships, and working with the County’s Community Engagement Coordinator, Raina Vann, to get critical services out to the community. “The way I think about my role has changed since COVID. We have folks throughout the County who need our services and support. Now is an opportunity for us to provide services in such a way that our citizens know our county is here as a resource for them…[to help them sustain and thrive].” Monica believes that Henrico is a great place to live, work and play because she’s lived in the County all her life. Her goal is to continue making Henrico a great place by providing “pockets of excellence” throughout the entire county to meet the needs of our ever-changing diverse community.