Hogg Foundation gives $4.5 million to address rural community health

Savana Dunning

The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health awarded $4.5 million in grants July 1 to organizations in five rural Texas counties to address health inequity between rural and urban communities.

The Hogg Foundation is a grant-making institution housed in UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement that has historically funded advancements in wellness and recovery in communities. Although traditionally focused on mental health, the recent grant seeks to address overall health in rural communities as a part of mental health.

Each recipient received $410,000 to help their communities identify and tackle the conditions that create health issues within their counties. The foundation also gave grant money to a sixth organization, Alliance for Greater Works, to lead the program.

Sherrye Willis, founder and president of Alliance for Greater Works, said her organization will go to meetings in the awarded counties on a monthly basis to guide and train grant recipients on how to effectively address these issues within their counties.

“What we are advising them on is not how to use their grant money but how to engage their community,” Willis said. “(The Alliance for Greater Works is) making sure we’re providing the training and development to help them.”

Rick Ybarra, program officer for the Hogg Foundation, said part of the foundation’s new approach to grant making is being more community driven, such that the foundation takes more of a backseat, supportive role to the organizations involved.

“This is about their communities’ health and well-being, and we’re just going to be there to support them, to help be a sounding board for their ideas, but really we just want to provide the opportunity to take ownership and make those decisions,” Ybarra said. “They’re the experts of their communities, not the foundation folks.”

The organizations, Bastrop County Cares (Bastrop County), Community Action Corporation of South Texas (Brooks County), Northeast Texas Community College (Morris County), Stephen F. Austin State University (Nacogdoches County) and the Victoria County Public Health Department (Victoria County), each said they have different needs and approaches for engaging with their communities and tackling these problems.

Bastrop County has had seven federally declared disasters in the past three years, including floods, fires and damage from Hurricane Harvey. As a rural community, transportation and communication during these times has been especially difficult.

Dan Kleiner, Bastrop County Cares’ finance and development director, said that after talking with members of their community, Bastrop County Cares began to notice the need for resilience and mental health support in Bastrop.

“We came to find that a lot of our community members don’t feel like they have control over transforming the environments where they live,” Kleiner said. “It brings with it a feeling of helplessness — there’s really nothing that any human being can do when a wildfire is bearing down on them, when 50 inches of rain are falling on them.”

Kleiner said Bastrop County Cares, with the help from the Hogg Foundation, can begin to address the health-based aftereffects of those natural disasters.

“To some degree, we’re like the Hogg Foundation’s research partner,” Kleiner said. “We’re going to be hosting bold and courageous conversations within communities that have never really been engaged in this way.”