When Sophia Holloway of North Birmingham needed a tutor for her 14-year-old son, she took out her smartphone and, with just a few clicks, found several programs in the city that offered the service.
Holloway found her son’s tutor using a web page developed by staffers at the United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA). The new page uses a geographic information system (GIS) platform to create a specialized, interactive digital map that displays the location of various services and nonprofit agencies throughout Birmingham.
“It’s very user-friendly,” says Holloway. “It actually lists information that I was not aware of. We were searching for tutors in the area, and it listed places that I didn’t know offered those services.”
United Way created the page (boldgoals.org/GEARUP) in partnership with an initiative called Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) Birmingham. The initiative, supported with a $20 million federal grant, aims to raise the academic achievement of a cohort of 3,400 7th- and 8th-grade Birmingham City School students by providing them with a range of academic and social services through their first year of college.
“The overarching goal of GEAR UP Birmingham is to prepare students for post-secondary education,” says GEAR UP Birmingham Project Director Donna Turner. “That includes providing academic support, social support in the form of mentoring, wrap-around services and financial literacy. All of those things tied together are what we believe will help prepare children for post-secondary education.”
Assisting GEAR UP Birmingham is a project of the UWCA’s Bold Goals Coalition, says Sara Newell, the UWCA Senior Vice President of Community Impact. Through Bold Goals, the UWCA is partnering with local businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to organize and develop sustainable solutions that will address issues such as low academic achievement, financial illiteracy and health disparities in the Birmingham area.
“Our role has really been primarily, up to this point, to be a navigational guide for the GEAR UP director to help her access this whole network of organizations through a central point,” Newell says. “The other way we’ve been helping is by organizing a lot of community resources into a variety of more easily accessible channels for the various constituencies served by this grant.”
UWCA staffers came up with the idea for the web resource app that is now called the GEAR UP Birmingham Resource Map. They started the project by determining which community programs and resources to include, says Caroline Harris, a UWCA Community Engagement Specialist and one of the co-creators. That meant starting with Bold Goals partners like Girls Inc., A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club and YWCA as well as the Birmingham City Schools.
“We took an inventory of what they were doing and where, and we plotted those out based on the schools’ locations,” says Harris. “We thought that might be the easiest format to begin with and could be modified throughout the time that we were using it.”
People can access the GEAR UP Birmingham Resource Map at www.boldgoals.org/GEARUP and use it to find the nearest schools, health clinics, food pantries, homeless shelters and transitional housing facilities, as well as youth and after-school programs. The map also lists the UWCA’s 211 Information and Referral Line, where families can call or go online for help locating housing, counseling, employment and other services.
“Our goal was to create an app that would be easy for students, teachers, principals, and those involved in student support services to use,” says Dan Stephens, UWCA’s vice president of Education and Community Impact who also worked on the project.
Besides providing GEAR UP families with information, the digital map also gives them a level of privacy when searching for those services, Turner says.
“They don’t have to come to anyone in the district,” she says. “They can go right to that tool and find out who the contact person is based upon the resource and do it with anonymity. I’m happy about that.”