Fairfield Forward connects the county to make it better

Last year’s board members for Fairfield Forward, pictured from left: Chris Clausen, Gabrielle Young, Alexis Hartwell, Patti Wilkes, Liz Walsh and Vernon Kennedy.

WINNSBORO – Community organizations in Fairfield County have long recognized an important truth: If they worked together, they could accomplish more.

This idea has underpinned the formation of several community coalitions over the years, which continue today in the form of Fairfield Forward, a local nonprofit that links community organizations together with nonprofit partners and local government to pursue common goals.

“I think the partnership has shown to be one that allows us to pool together our strengths, our collaboration, so that we can garner the resources for this community to help improve our health outcomes and the overall quality of life in our community,” says Vernon Kennedy, executive director of Fairfield Behavioral Health Services, and a board member of Fairfield Forward.

“I think the hope is that we will continue to recruit additional partners that can help fill gaps of service in the community.”

Kennedy, who has been involved in community efforts for 15 years, has watched the organization evolve to its current form.

Eight years ago, he says, two community coalitions – groups that involved many of the same people in the current Fairfield Forward group – merged to create the Fairfield County Community Coordinating Council. That coalition led community health efforts ranging from a fatherhood initiative to faith-based partnerships on health education.

Building on its work with existing projects, the organization applied for and received a “Healthy People, Healthy Carolinas” grant from the Duke Endowment in 2016, a major grant that has funded a variety of health-based initiatives that continue today.

Two years ago, the council merged with the Fairfield Community Development Corporation (a 501C(3) created by the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce) to create Fairfield Forward and giving it a 501C(3) status.

Chris Clauson, community development director for Fairfield county and chairman of Fairfield Forward since 2019, says much of the organization’s focus has been on health-related issues.

Based on the community’s identified health challenges – a list that includes things like high rates of diabetes and heart disease – the organization has begun several initiatives centered around bringing healthy food and fitness opportunities to the county’s largely rural and below-poverty population.

Lindsay Decker, project coordinator for Fairfield Forward and the organization’s lone employee, says one of its big programs right now is establishing a local hub for FoodShare, a nonprofit program that provides reduced-cost boxes of fresh produce. The process, she says, will also result in the ability to accept SNAP benefits at the farmers market later this year.

Another recent Fairfield Forward project was the purchase of gym equipment for the new fitness center created in a deteriorating building recently renovated by the county in Drawdy Park. The fitness center, which also houses a large dance/Zumba studio is open to county residents and walkable for many residents of Winnsboro. It is slated to open Feb. 1.

Fairfield Forward has also worked with the county on another recreation initiative: improvements to the Alston trailhead of the Palmetto Trail. And when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the nonprofit got involved in relief efforts, helping to fund, for several weeks, boxes of food that were free to those in need.

In addition to a direct partnership in projects, Clauson said, having a framework in place for nonprofits, local government, and private-sector partners to collaborate can make a big difference when it comes to drawing grant dollars and other resources to the county.

“You can only do so much as a governmental agency, and you can only do so much with the private sector, so this is just the nonprofit that can sort of be nimble and fill in the cracks where need be,” he said. “It opens up a lot of opportunities for future endeavors.”

“A lot of the projects advanced by Fairfield Forward are relatively small things, Decker said: involvement with a community garden, water bottle filling stations in schools, healthy workplace initiatives, planned outdoor fitness equipment for local parks and trails. But those small things can make a big difference for our citizens,” she said.

“It is an essential nonprofit to this community not only for health and well-being, but in being able to take on tasks that might get lost or fill a need that might seem small,” she said. “That’s one thing that, really, I kind of take pride in, in the community, from Fairfield Forward’s perspective. There’s no task too small.”

The organization also serves as “the connector piece” in other ways, she said – not just serving people directly through its programs, but also indirectly by connecting them with other programs in the community.

“Our mission is connecting people to resources, and we really have a lot of partners from all over – so I like to think of Fairfield Forward as kind of a first stop if a community member needs something and doesn’t know where to get it,” she said. “We’re always looking for partners that we might not have known about.”

The invitation is open, Decker said, to attend the organization’s monthly meetings, where information on programs and events is often shared – and, she said, there’s always an ear open for new opportunities to collaborate.

“I see a lot of good things already happening,” Decker said, “but also a lot of room for more good things.”

For more information about Fairfield Forward, go to www.fairfieldforward.org.