By Lauren M. Connolly, Ph.D.
Rural communities offer unique challenges when it comes to outreach and support. While digital technology has provided some ways to enhance organizations’ ability to reach people, there are challenges even within the prevalence of the internet and cell phones. Whether someone is an educator or working in social services, it is important to consider how students or clients can access the information that they need to have to be successful.
Teaching at a small, four-year, public college that services a large number of commuter and first-generation students, I consider how students' access to services both for completing their classwork, as well as community services that can impact their daily lives. This work involves developing relationships with students and community members. It can range from providing information for students to get assistance accessing the internet to specific information on transportation and childcare. Community outreach is essential to understand students' potential needs. As a result, it is necessary to develop a variety of ways to share information, so people to be able to get the assistance they need.
Digital technology has been a boon for helping people find information, ask for and receive resources for help, and make contact with support networks. One of the struggles for those reaching out to people living in rural areas is that consistent internet and mobile phone service is not a realistic option. If someone lives out of town, they must travel into town to use their cell phone or the local library to access the internet. Even for those with satellite service, the internet is slow and expensive.
Another issue that arises is consistent access to reliable transportation. Owning a working vehicle that can handle the seasons, particularly in the winter and living in a community that keeps roads clear, impacts students' ability to come to class, as well as access services. Public transportation is frequently not an option, as services may not be offered in their community. Students are expected to manage their own transport, but some organizations have worked to develop a plan to take their services to the clients.
I interviewed Lauri Lewis, executive director of the YWCA of Lewiston, Idaho – Clarkston, Washington, to discuss some of the issues that she found in her work with rural communities in Idaho. The YWCA developed a plan to go to the clients in need. For victims of domestic violence, staff will travel to meet with women, sometimes even transporting them to shelters. But transportation is only one part of what is needed. Lewis highlighted other issues could compound difficulty access to resources, but she emphasized the key to outreach is building relationships with those in the communities they serve.
Lewis mentioned that the key to building relationships is trust. She explains how building trust is multi-faceted. Trust between the organization and community is developed by making connections through community events such as the county fair or local quilting circle. She also makes sure to purchase items, such as office supplies, from the local shops, as it allows them to develop connections with the people who live and work in the community. While it is more expensive to do so, personal contact is invaluable to their work.
The rural communities have unique challenges that require creative solutions to successfully reach those that need services the most. If you would like to learn more about this, please sign up for our webinar Outreach and Support in Rural Communities.