Finney County social and civic organizations have seen strong successes working together to secure grant funding. Now, Ford County groups hope to do the same, perhaps a difficult feat.

A new group of social, healthcare and civic organizations in Ford County are hoping to replicate the successes of the Finney County Community Health Coalition, which since 2000 has been a focal point for several public health programs out of Garden City.

The Ford County Health Coalition, started in August, is the latest of several such organizations of organizations that are sprouting in southwest Kansas following the model set by Finney County and encouraged by the state.

"The gist of it, it takes the whole community to be on the same page to solve some of these problems," said the organizer of the Ford County group, Marsha Oursler, who also teaches at Dodge City High School.

The groups aim to prevent inter-local competition and replication of services in the cash-strapped world of public health and to act as a single-source for funding, expertise and collaboration. The local hospital, charities, the county health department and social service providers are part of the backbone of the Finney County group, and are supported by the school district and local governments.

"The state is backing off, but the thing is, we're still depending on the funding and that's kind of the hard thing," she said.

So, by sharing grant-writing expertise and a single banner to tout successes, it should become easier to secure state and federal funding.

"There is no grant we will not go after if it fits what we need," Oursler said.

In recent years the state has outsourced some of its public health work to local groups, seeing them as more capable of knowing the community and able to respond to its needs. It can also be seen as more cost-effective by separating itself from the requirements of government staffing and long-term financial obligations.

"These community-based groups such as the Ford and Finney County health coalitions are an effective way to channel state funding into preventative services," said Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services spokesperson Angela de Rocha. "Organizations such as this are well equipped to articulate a community's concerns and have first-hand, on-the-ground knowledge of the community's needs."

The agency works closely with local providers, de Rocha said, and KDADS has a representative in the Ford County coalition.

Perfectly replicating the Finney County coalition might be difficult, however, as the group was "very informal" for almost a decade of its existence, said Director Verna Weber. Instead, the group grew from a small number of non-governmental organizations before it became the professionally-administered, grant-money-gobbling gold standard in community health organizations it is today.

The Finney County Community Health Coalition started in 2000 as part of the missions committee at St. Catherine Hospital, which as a Catholic, non-profit hospital had a long tradition of public work, Weber said. At the same time, the city's recreation commission needed an advisory board to oversee several grants it had been awarded. They worked together, and eventually brought in many more stakeholders.

Now, more than 50 organizations, businesses and government agencies are members of the coalition which does not directly perform actions, but provides a support umbrella for front-line providers, Weber said.

"People decided years ago they were going to work together. It really started 25 years ago, but everyone decided they have to leave their egos at the door," Weber said.

"That's why we've gotten such large, large grants. For one thing, we bring the right people together. The other thing, we ask the community what they want," she added. A big part of that is by bringing in new voices from outside of the often small circle of the doin'-good-in-the-'hood community.

"Get very unusual suspects," Weber said, "get somebody from business, get somebody from economic development, ... get somebody from that casino."

The first item addressed by the Finney County coalition was teen pregnancy, but it wasn't until 2005 when the doors were opened to the community at large did the coalition really take off, Weber said. Among other issues, the group tackled programs on smoking, transportation and increasing the awareness of available social and health services in the community to those in need.

Among the successes, the coalition ushered in a new fixed-route bus system in connection with the senior center and got a public building smoking ban enacted in 2007.

It wasn't until 2009 that the coalition got its first major single-purpose grant, $300,000 per year for three years that required the group to become more organized and hire a professional director. By 2011, it removed itself from the hospital's books, which acted as the coalition's fiscal agent, and became its own not-for-profit corporation.

"Grant funders lover to see collaboration," Weber said.

Ford County will face some challenges as it attempts to build a similar organization. Among them, the coalition members will need to learn to "celebrate very small successes," Weber said, in the early years of existence.

The success of Finney County's coalition might be another obstacle, a former member of a previous Ford County Health Coalition said.

In the late 2000s, organizations in Ford County attempted to form a coalition, but it never got traction, the former member said, mostly because Finney County ended up winning the $1 million grant Ford County hoped would be its jumpstart. Without funding to pass on to its members, the group collapsed.

The first issue the Ford County coalition hopes to tackle is youth alcohol use. It made the decision based on the Kansas Communities That Care data which derives information from a series of surveys taken by students.

Though the risk factor has seen significant declines since 2006, and in 2013 Ford County had lower self-reported usage than the state average, a rarity, grants exist to continue fighting the problem. One good grant could be a catalyst for long-term success of the coalition.

Also, an arrest over the weekend by state authorities and the Dodge City Police Department on six individuals for illegally selling alcohol, child endangerment and contributing to the misconduct of a minor is further evidence of a problem in the community, Oursler with the Ford County coalition said.

Another issue that the coalition will need to grow out of, as seen at a recent meeting, will be finding ways to communicate the promise of the group to front-line providers that have been making their own way, or teamed up into smaller ad hoc groups, for many years.

Weber said the Ford County group should expect growing pains, and member organizations will need to learn they can't "flood their agenda into the meetings."

An all-encompassing, adjective-rich mission statement did little to inform one first-time member what the group was about, but Dodge City's Public Information Officer Jane Longmeyer, a communications professional and the city's representative to the group, spoke up and put it into regular terms. Afterward, heads nodded.