Center for Health and Social Issues looks to improve quality of life in Oconee Heights neighborhood

Center for Health and Social Issues looks to improve quality of life in Oconee Heights neighborhood

M ore than just an eye-sore, neighborhood blight brings with it a slew of social and economic issues. 

Rundown and dilapidated homes and buildings lead to increased crime, lower property values and are an indicator of overall poverty levels in an area. 

Georgia College’s Center for Health and Social Issues (CHSI) is working to address blight in one Milledgeville neighborhood with the goal of increasing the well-being of the people living there. 

Dr. Damian Francis, director of CHSI, and his team spent hours surveying residents of the Oconee Heights neighborhood to find out the most important challenges they see in their community. 

“The idea came about that we should begin by assessing the community needs, and so it started out of a conversation between the CHSI and the county commissioners working to find out what needs communities have,” said Francis. “We used grant funding to meet and survey people living in the area.”

Community meeting in Oconee Heights.
Community meeting in Oconee Heights.

The needs assessment identified blight as a top concern. Now Francis and his team of students and faculty members are working to conduct a blight assessment that will document the burden and severity of the problem. 

“What we hope to achieve with the blight assessment is the necessary evidence to support blight remediation efforts such as a charter,” Francis said. “Providing an overall framework that the county could use to handle blighted properties.”

In most people’s minds, the only solution to blight is demolition, but a blight remediation charter aims to identify other options.  

“Blight doesn't necessarily equal demolition. Sometimes blight means an opportunity for restoration or better enforcement of tax and property codes,” said Francis. “We're hoping to promote a charter that emphasizes enforcement of codes, tax sales of property that has been abandoned and restoration where that might be possible.”

Blight doesn't necessarily equal demolition. Sometimes blight means an opportunity for restoration or better enforcement of tax and property codes.
– Dr. Damian Francis
Through their work, they’ve also helped establish community collaboratives meant to foster community involvement and improve the quality of life in the residents. These collaboratives include residents, local government, non-profits and Georgia College. 

“We have different stakeholders coming into meetings where we sit down and talk about the issues, as well as potential solutions,” said Francis. “The goal is to empower residents to jointly come up with the solutions for their own community. Then stakeholders along with the university pursue funding for these ideas through grants.” 

“Over time, it brings social cohesion within the community and the solutions come about,” he said.

Senior public health major Kaitlyn Gauthier currently interns with CHSI. She’s helping to conduct the blight assessment and assisting in writing a faculty grant proposal to help fund asset mapping in the area. 

Kaitlyn Gauthier
Kaitlyn Gauthier

The faculty research grant was just approved and is a partnership between CHSI and Dr. Doug Oetter, geography professor at Georgia College. Together they will map blight and the assets or agencies in the community that could serve as a resource.

“Once our work is finished, I hope to see these communities come together and recognize the serious health risks blight poses and work together to help eliminate the blight in their communities,” said Gauthier. 

This is just one of the many projects CHSI currently has in the works. They have on-going efforts in the Harrisburg neighborhood including a food bank and health screenings. They’re also working in the Coopers community with county leaders to set up WIFI internet at the fire station for public access and renovating a walking trail. Francis and his graduate assistant Catherine Woodall have led those efforts.

Their work always harkens back to CHSI’s mission— to improve the health of the residents of Central Georgia through collaborative campus/community partnerships and to provide research and education concerning contemporary health problems and social issues.

It all involves getting out in the community, listening to residents and getting creative with solutions. Whether it’s educating on healthy living or addressing the problems associated with blight, those leading the effort hope their work leaves a lasting legacy on a community that needs it. 
“I could list a million things that I have learned through the process so far, but something that stands out the most is how important community engagement and empowerment is,” said Gauthier. “The communities we seek to help are so thankful to have people who care to make changes in their community that they might not be able to accomplish on their own.”

“It has been so rewarding to have community members come up to me and thank me for the work that I contribute to help make their community a better place,” she said.

Damian Francis speaks with a community member.
Damian Francis speaks with a community member.