Local community leader has children, families at heart

Published 9:54 am Wednesday, April 24, 2019

By Beth Alston

AMERICUS — Krystal N. Heath has a servant’s heart. Not only does she lead a local collaboration to provide services to local children and families, she is also a spiritual leader.
Heath is the founder/pastor of Believe Covenant Deliverance Ministries Inc. and Covenant Woman Enterprise. An innovative, nonprofit mobilizer, she’s a graduate of Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW), where she received her bachelor of science and master of business administration. She is an ordained pastor and a spiritual mentor to many. She has 18 years of experience as a highly skilled, accomplished professional with diverse experience in education, management, healthcare management, project management, customer service development, community advancement, and nonprofit management.
Heath was born to the late James Frank Austin Sr. of New York, New York, and Sarah Smith of Americus. She grew up in Americus, and is a 1994 graduate of Americus High School, before attending and receiving two degrees from GSW.
After graduating college, Heath begin her career in management as a center director at a child development center. It was in this position that she discovered her love for children and families. In this role, she gained respect for the vulnerable population and the community in which she lives. Her passion drove her to become an agent of change no matter where she lands.
Heath is an active volunteer in the community. She has served on several boards such as a former board member of the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce, former chair of the Chamber’s Education Division, Sumter County Head Start Community representative for Policy Council, Americus-Sumter Transition Housing Ministry, Sumter County YDC board member, and BCDM board president, among others. She is a certified child passenger technician. In this role, she educates parents and caregivers on the proper installation of child car seats and on seat belt safety. She said these roles have prepared her to be a leader in her local community as she continues to advocate for children and families. She said she is dedicated to helping families as they meet the challenges of life.

Krystal Heath, in her role with Sumter County Family Connection, helps to coordinate services for people in search of them. Here, she is shown, second from right, at a community resource fair. With her are, from left, Walter Knighton, associate superintendent, Sumter County Schools; Diana Roberts, resident services coordinator, Housing Authority of Americus; and John Shawm manager, Georgia Department of Labor Americus Office.

Heath is the mother of three children, Kirsten Meriweather, Eric Aldridge Jr., and Eriel Aldridge. She is committed supporting her family in their dreams and aspirations. She is a lifelong learner and opens herself to new ideas and innovations.
Heath has worked as the coordinator for Sumter County Family Connection for three years. In this role, she has been able to work with other community partners to help address some of the needs of this community. The Connection is a nonprofit organization dedicated to working collectively with community leaders to address and resolve issues on the local level related to children and families in all 159 countries of Georgia. Sumter County Family Connection connects partners to the resources they need, and helps coordinate and manage efforts, and as well as empowering communities to craft local solutions based on local decisions.
“Bringing everyone together has helped us to better understand and address the most pressing concerns of communities and partners,” Heath said of the Connection. “This disciplined approach to collaboration allows us to extend much-needed, locally-based support, and to make effective use of existing resources and services.
“We also connect creative solutions to expand, improve, and cultivate new efforts that work to eliminate service gaps. So, at our core, we advocate for system changes that eliminate the barriers and inefficiencies standing in the way of progress and positive outcomes.
“A strong social infrastructure, coupled with evaluating our progress, is the best way to enable measurably better outcomes. Collaboration and collective effort yield collective impact. Any issue we’ve addressed, every action we’ve supported, all the success we’ve helped to achieve have been a shared effort.”
Heath explained that one of the organizations’ goals in Sumter County is to improve early childhood and family literacy and to increase awareness and family economic self-sufficiency. “We use data from Georgia Kids Count to help us plan,” she said. “We take this data and develop an annual plan and logic model to help guide us in doing the work here in the local community. Based on the data our early childhood indicator is third-grade students achieving Proficient Learner or above on Milestones ELA assessment. We have partnered with the Sumter County Schools to focus on a literacy initiative. The initiative is governed, so we are able to bring awareness to the community and partners on literacy and how it impacts our community.” Heath added that insufficient vocabulary, comprehension, and literacy skills negatively impact children for the rest of their lives. Once a child falls behind in language development, it is very difficult for him or her to catch up after third grade. “That’s why it’s so alarming that 65 percent of Georgia third graders lack necessary vocabulary and reading comprehension skills,” she added.
One of the literacy initiatives is the Lending Libraries, which aim to promote the importance of early literacy by providing easy access to age appropriate and educational books. The Lending Library focuses on strengthening parent-child relationships through reading and interaction. Heath explained that the early learning strategy team, which was developed from the Sumter County Collaborative, partners with seven local churches and three agencies where they have placed small bookshelves stocked with books donated from community partners. The bookshelves were built by the students at Americus-Sumter High School and materials to build the shelves were donated by community partners.
“If a student reads for 20 minutes a day, which is 3,600 minutes per year, 1.8 million words per year, the student will score in the 90th percentile on standardized testing,” Heath said. “Now compare them to a student that reads one minute per day, which will be 180 minutes per year, which is 8,000 words per year. This child will score in the 10th percentile on the standardized testing. It’s important that we raise a literate future.”
The collaborative also partnered with the Child Care Resource and Referral Center of Southwest Georgia in Albany to educate local daycare providers on “Quality Rated,” which is a systemic approach to assess, improve, and communicate the level of quality in early and school‐age care and education programs. “We were able to host an event to bring current information about becoming a Quality Rated childcare program,” Heath said.
The family economic self-sufficient strategy team’s focus is to bring awareness to the community about poverty. According to Georgia Kids Count, 1 out of 2 children are living in poverty, in Sumter County. Sumter County’s rate is at 57.1 percent compared to Georgia’s 30.7 percent. In an effort to lower this number, the strategy team partnered with the Americus Housing Authority in support of their family eco-self-sufficient workshops, where partners in the collaborative share with the families the programs and services that their agency provides. Sumter Family Connection partnered with the Americus Housing Authority to host a Community Resource fair for the families. The resource fair brought local agencies into the neighborhood to share with the families the services and programs offered, not just by local agencies, but also by CMOs for health care. At the resource fair, the Sumter County Health Department offered free blood pressure checks and education to the residents. The Connection also supports the Americus Housing Authority Summer Reading PALS program by donating new books to each child to take home with them.
The Connection conducted a survey to ensure that the work they do is efficient. This survey was conducted by Sumter County Family Connection and Americus Housing Authority to better understand issues of importance to residents and resources needed to address those issues. The assessment included identification of needs and resources through 69 responses to a community survey conducted in August 2018. The Key Findings were:
• Respondents were very satisfied with the workshops that had been offered, with 88 percent of participants rating the workshops excellent or very good.
• More than half of residents indicated they are strongly interested in learning more about job or employment training, dropout prevention, help with post-high school options, and learning how to make a budget.
• Nearly half of residents indicated that they had been unable to afford medical care, medicine, or dental care in the past 12 months.
• More than one-third of residents had difficulty affording clothing, transportation to healthcare appointments, groceries, school supplies, or rent in the past 12 months.
• Only 14 percent of residents said that they rarely or never exercise.
• More than one-third of respondents volunteer very frequently or frequently.
Sumter County Family Connection offers the Community Enrichment Scholarship Award. The one-time scholarship, in the amount of $250, is awarded to three applicants based upon demonstration of academic achievement as well as a well-rounded blend of extra-curricular activities, school/community service, and an essay written by the applicant. The applicant must be a graduating senior of Americus-Sumter High School pursuing post-secondary education, military, or entering the work force. The students that are working must provide proof of employment. The graduating senior must have a cumulative GPA of at least a 2.0. Scholarship applications and accompanying documentation must be completed in full and submitted to the School Counselor’s Office.
One of the reasons Heath is successful in her position with the Connection is that she grew up here and lives here and cares about her community.
“One of my favorite things about Americus is it has rich culture, family roots, and a reflection of a culture of love,” she said. “The people I have surrounded myself with are people trying to make a difference in the lives of others. All communities have many good and bad things, but my favorite is helping those that are the least.”
Heath quoted scripture illustrating this point — Matthew 25: 37-40: “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You as a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 4The King will answer and say to them, ‘I assure you and most solemnly say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it for Me.’”
Heath said the greatest challenge in the community is duplication of the same work. “In this community we are serving the same families, but in our own specialties,” she said. “The Sumter County Family Collaborative brings a network of partners together in the hope of bringing the collaborations of resources to yield a higher increase for the community. The greatest opportunity is to bring resources together that we may serve our community, children, and families in a greater capacity.”
If anyone wants to join the effort, visit the Sumter County Family Connection community collaborative meeting held at noon the third Thursday of each month at the Sumter County Extension Office, 127 William Bowen Pointe, Americus.