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Living United: Looking forward to a healthier community
Mary Fuller
Mary Fuller, United Way of the Coastal Empire Bryan County Area Director.

By Mary Fuller, United Way.

Finally, 2020 is coming to a close. As we all do this time of year, I have started to look toward 2021 and hope to see things look a little brighter for us all. I think we can all agree that this last year has been like no other in all our lifetimes, and the impact of this year will definitely carry into our next year and maybe longer. 2020 brought about decreased income, increased mental illness, isolation, and many feelings of unrest. Regardless, I can see that positive things are starting to happen. For example, a vaccine has been developed and has started to be administered right here in Bryan County.

As the area director for United Way in Bryan County, I get to witness on a regular basis the kindness and compassion of others along with the struggle of many who have no supports or resources to help them meet their needs.

I recently participated in a virtual conference where we talked about the impact of civic engagement on individuals and communities; things like volunteering, voting, participating in civic and other groups, and helping neighbors. Actually, it makes sense that people who are connected to their community and feel a sense of belonging and responsibility for it will more effectively change the community.

The conversation got me thinking about some of our community’s more complex social issues – poverty, health disparities, homelessness. Someone once said to me that she was concerned about the impact of the lack of affordable housing in Bryan County, but it just seemed too multifaceted and out of her control to know even where to start tackling it. I understand this feeling; when I really think about how to create more affordable housing in our area, it feels overwhelming. But could increased social engagement make an impact even if it were small for an individual, and then, collectively move the needle in the right direction?

Let’s start with information about civic engagement

and its benefits. The National Conference on Citizenship states that, “communities with strong indicators of civic health have higher employment rates, stronger schools, better physical health and more responsive governments.” Studies have shown that civic involvement has positive impacts on an individual’s health.

The research shows improvement in mental and physical health for those who volunteer, vote, and participate in both formal and informal community groups (www.healthypeople. gov). Our civic health reflects the degree to which people participate in their community and the overall well-being of neighbors and communities. So, we can see how civic engagement can really help us individually but also our county overall.

Even with required isolation from others and other negative effects of the pandemic lingering, we’ve seen a number of positive examples of civic engagement increasing at the end of 2020. Bryan County saw record numbers of citizens early voting in the general election and, nationally, the U.S. had the highest voter turnout in decades. We are seeing that same trend in our current runoffs.

Many people have been peacefully protesting through our streets and at our community centers to express their thoughts on very important issues like racial injustice and protecting the frontline workers. We have seen this even in Richmond Hill with groups coming together to peacefully acknowledge the need to look at systemic racism. We are seeing new efforts to celebrate our local Black history, which invites all our residents to participate in making our community better.

The pandemic has required us to find ways to make internet an essential utility and open doors to other avenues to be involved. Both Bryan County and City of Richmond Hill have now started to video their Board of Commissioners and City Council meetings, which makes it easier for everyone to listen, learn, and understand what is happening in our area.

This has taken courage by our elected leaders to open themselves up to criticism, but our government should be open to all.

We have opened the door and more people are engaging in making our community better, not just by donating food for Thanksgiving to a family in need or by donating a toy at Christmas, but by really being involved in what is happening right here in our county and the nation.

Getting back to our complex issues, it will be the many things that can happen from more people being socially involvement that will find the solution.

It will be the volunteers giving out the food who voice the need for affordable housing to others.

It will be the people who educate themselves about what is happening in their city to vote for incentives for affordable housing.

It will be the civic group members who make quality, affordable housing a club priority.

It will be the neighbors who lend a helping hand not only to those who belong to the same HOA, but to all Bryan County neighbors.

And it will be other efforts that I can’t even imagine or fathom at this point.

Collectively, that is how we will all get healthier throughout 2021.

Mary Fuller is United Way’s Bryan County Area Director.

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