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Wednesday, May 11, 2022

STRONG ACC secures $25 million grant to lift 1,000 Northeast Tennessee families out of poverty

A $25 million, three-year grant awarded by the Tennessee Department of Human Services (TDHS) will enable the STRONG Accountable Care Community (STRONG ACC) to commence a new, community-focused program that will help 1,000 low-income Northeast Tennessee families increase economic mobility, self-sufficiency and well-being.

With the grant comes the launch of STRONG Families Northeast Tennessee, a pilot program to be managed by the STRONG ACC that will use an innovative, multi-pronged approach. The 1,000 days-1,000 families program represents one of the largest-scale regional efforts to target and combat poverty in the Appalachian Highlands.

“Poor health, low education attainment and low incomes are intertwined, and to improve on one, we need to work on all three,” said Anthony Keck, executive vice president of system transformation and chief population health officer at Ballad Health.

“Organizations throughout the region have been working for years to affect lasting change, but this grant is one of the first opportunities to launch such a concentrated effort on a large scale to improve the health and well-being of thousands of people in Northeast Tennessee. We expect the learnings from this effort can then be expanded to an even larger group in the future.”

With the STRONG ACC implementing the program in partnership with several of its member organizations, participating families will have access to a wide range of services and resources to put them on the path to success.

“The STRONG ACC is proud to lead efforts to reduce poverty, and we’re especially proud to launch this program that will change thousands of lives in our communities,” said Mark Cruise, director of the STRONG ACC. “Initiatives like STRONG Families are why we exist as a community collective, and the effects of helping these families will be felt for years to come and are going to stretch far beyond the individual households that are served.”

TDHS considered applicants across the state for the Tennessee Opportunity Pilot Initiative (TOPI) grant program, and the application created by the STRONG ACC – with the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD), a STRONG ACC member, serving as fiscal agent – was one of only seven grants awarded statewide, announced in a TDHS press release on May 5.

Once launched, STRONG Families Northeast Tennessee will serve families in 10 counties: Carter, Cocke, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

“The impact of this grant will be felt in every corner of Northeast Tennessee by serving 1,000 families in need over the next 1,000 days,” said the Hon. Joe Grandy, First Tennessee Development District board chair and mayor of Washington County, Tennessee. “By partnering with the STRONG ACC, the FTDD is fulfilling its long-standing mission to increase economic opportunity through collaboration.

“I speak for every board member of the First Tennessee Development District when we express our thanks to the State of Tennessee and the Department of Human Services for the faith they have placed in our region and for providing the resources to alleviate poverty and overcome barriers to opportunity.”

First Tennessee Development District is the recipient organization for the grant, and the application was the result of a cooperative effort of many regional groups, with the STRONG ACC serving as a backbone. Its implementation will only be possible because of ongoing collective action.

“This grant award is the net result of the hard work and quality of the partners that worked on this project, including the STRONG ACC, FTDD, Ballad Health, MAYA Consulting and the ETSU Center for Rural Health Research,” said Mark Stevans, director of special projects for the First Tennessee Development District. “We also had the benefit of working with an outstanding family design partner, Karalyn Alphin, who ensured a focus on building family power, resiliency and growth.”

As STRONG Families Northeast Tennessee takes shape, partners of the STRONG ACC, such as Frontier Health, Upper East Tennessee Human Development Agency, Tennessee Voices and the YWCA of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, will add crucial support to ensure the success of the new, poverty-centered initiative.

“We have many community partners ready to get this program off the ground from day one,” said Dr. Paula Masters, vice president of population health for Ballad Health. “When we address these issues related to poverty, everyone benefits, so taking a community-wide approach is going to go miles in terms of success.”

Through the initiative, 1,000 families – including an estimated 1,800 children – will have access to behavioral health services, a regular cash stipend and, notably, a network of family partners to help guide families out of poverty. The family partners are the centerpiece for the program, functioning as a bridge between families and community resources. Family partners will be paired with families on a highly concentrated, low caseload basis and reside in or near the communities where their enrolled families live.

Family partners will be trained in peer support methods and will be a cultural match for the families they serve, either through a lived experience of poverty or experience working with low-income individuals.

“The family partner system isn’t just a tool for families, it’s an interpersonal connection with someone who might have a lot of the same experiences,” Cruise said. “They’re someone who can not only help families but relate to them and the challenges they face.”

TDHS views its programs and services as instruments for creating positive change in the lives of Tennesseans. Through the Tennessee Opportunity Pilot Initiative, Tennessee will be able to demonstrate with measurable data those strategies that are most effective at growing the self-sufficiency of vulnerable families.

“This grant provides us with an incredible opportunity to further the efforts we’re making to improve the quality of life in our communities,” Stevans said. “STRONG Families Northeast Tennessee zeroes in on some specific challenges many families in our region face, and addressing these issues puts us one step closer to bringing these families out of poverty permanently.”

Strong legislative support

At a press conference on Monday, May 9, multiple Northeast Tennessee elected officials provided commentary and words of support for STRONG Families Northeast Tennessee:

  • State Sen. Rusty Crowe, District Three, co-sponsor of the legislation behind the TOPI grant: “Personal responsibility is what we’re all about in Tennessee. All the dollars in this grant are going to families, to make sure our self-sufficiency goals are met.”
  • State Sen. Jon Lundberg, District Four: “In a three-year pilot, we’re going to change lives forever.”
  • State Rep. Rebecca Alexander, District Seven: “This is huge for this community. It’s an honor to represent you all in Nashville.”
  • State Rep. John Crawford, District One: “This is such a shot in the arm for our community. This is what makes it all worthwhile – when we can help families step forward. Thanks to everyone who had a hand in this.”
  • State Rep. David Hawk, District Five: “We wanted a precise way to invest dollars from Tennessee’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. So instead of throwing money at a problem, we took a fine-tune look at families to see how we could reduce their reliance on public assistance and increase their self-sufficiency. STRONG ACC had what we were looking for, with a vision to ensure working families in Northeast Tennessee to keep working and not slide down a financial cliff.”
  • Tennessee Rep. Tim Hicks, District Six: “What’s exciting about this grant is that it puts money where it’s needed most – with struggling families, so they can spend it where it’s needed.”

Learn more about the STRONG ACC.


STRONG stands for Striving Toward Resiliency and Opportunity for the Next Generation. Established in 2018, the STRONG Accountable Care Community is a multi-sector, collective impact coalition comprised of more than 325 organizations committed to early childhood development, educational success, economic vitality, and health and wellbeing in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The STRONG ACC is governed by a 24-member Leadership Council comprised of a broad cross-section of regional leaders in healthcare, human services, education and business. To learn more, please visit the STRONG ACC website.

About First Tennessee Development District

The First Tennessee Development District was formed in 1966 as a result of legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly. The First Tennessee Development District is one of nine regional organizations in the state that carries out general and comprehensive planning and development activities for local governments. The mayors from the eight counties and twenty municipalities that comprise the District, as well as industrial and legislative representatives, serve on the board of directors and provide direction to the staff as they serve the region through planning, coordination and technical assistance.

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