Can residents’ faith in Flint be restored?
While getting the lead out of Flint, Mich., remains the No. 1 goal of Mayor Karen Weaver, she has been clear her second goal is to obtain the financial and other important resources the city needs to recover from its water disaster.
The crisis has been trying for citizens, who for months couldn’t cook, drink or bathe in the water coming out of their faucets. Unsurprisingly, Weaver — in a presentation at the Michigan Municipal League’s Capital Conference in March — stated, “Some have elevated blood lead levels. There are a lot of parents that have to cope with the anxiety that lead-laced water might have permanently affected their child’s development and possibly stunted that child’s future.”
To address these anxieties, aid residents’ recovery and restore trust, Weaver and the city have identified a wide range of focus areas, including health, education and opening up communication between the city and its residents.
The first priorities: health and well-being
With many children having been exposed to lead-tainted water, education and nutrition have become important components of Flint’s recovery plan. “When we talk about education, that is going to be the key to helping our children,” Weaver said.
The approach will include expanding early literacy programs, instituting universal preschool, training school nurses to help students affected by lead, and enlarging schools’ special education capacity. “We have to have instruction for our teachers on how to spot developmental and other problems in children affected by lead,” she urged.
Flint continues to offer blood testing, especially for children. Weaver and the city are also zooming in on other services that directly impact children.
In May, it was announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded access to summer EBT benefits to children living in Flint. This expansion meant an additional 23,000 children — bringing the total of eligible children to 39,000 — in Flint were eligible to receive a $30 benefit package each month during the summer. During the school year about 22 million children receive free and reduced price school meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.
Increasing access to WIC for women and their children has also become a goal. Proper nutrition, Weaver explained in her presentation, will greatly help those affected by lead.
“Flint still doesn’t have a major grocery chain in city limits,” she noted. “It’s hard to get access to the food they need after being exposed to lead. That’s something I still struggle with, having grown up in the Buick City — that transportation would ever be a barrier for our families.”
Health and nutrition experts are working with the city to teach Flint families the importance of foods rich in iron, calcium and vitamin C in combatting the effects of lead. Weaver noted, however, such efforts take time and money to put in place and promote.
Ten philanthropies have stepped up and plan to provide nearly $15 million for health, education and economic development in the city. These organizations include the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, FlintNOW Foundation, Ford Foundation, The Hagerman Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ruth Mott Foundation, Skillman Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
“Flint’s water crisis is far from over. While some funds and services have been provided, we’re still waiting for the state and federal governments to step up, replace damaged infrastructure and make long-term commitments to the health and education of children,” Ridgway White, president of the Charles Steward Mott Foundation, which is headquartered in Flint, said in May. “Today our foundations are stepping in to help. We envision a vibrant Flint with a robust economy, dynamic culture and healthy, thriving residents; and we’re committed to achieving these goals.”
Much of the funding will go to six priorities: ensuring all Flint residents have safe drinking water; meeting the health needs of Flint families; supporting early education; building a more robust nonprofit sector; promoting community engagement; and revitalizing the city’s economy.
Bringing them on board
Great efforts are still in place to involve and inform Flint residents about what efforts are underway. Weaver continually holds town hall meetings at locations throughout Flint, including at local churches, the Hasselbring Community Center, Flint City Hall Dome and other locations to give Flint residents a chance to hear firsthand from city leaders information about projects, plans and other matters. Attendees can also pick up bottled water and filters at the meetings.
To aid in the distribution of information while also increasing resident involvement in solutions, the mayor has turned to the city’s Water-Works program. The pilot program provides work opportunities for teens and young adults, who distribute needed nutritional information and clean water to Flint residents.
Additionally, the mayor and other city officials have encouraged local businesses to get involved in the recovery effort. At the end of May the city released its request for proposals, or RFPs, to get local business owners to participate in the city’s Fast Start Initiative. Bids were closed June 21.
Still, no one has lost site of the precipitating factor in all of this. As Weaver said in her presentation, “Nothing less than a complete renewal of Flint’s water system is needed, as well as enough money to provide health, education, economic and family services to the children and adults in Flint affected by the water crisis. We need the state and federal government to provide these badly needed funds.”
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