When I signed on as a consultant with The Patterson Foundation’s Census 2020 Education Initiative, I knew it would provide a valuable opportunity to work with community and business leaders throughout Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties.
What I didn’t realize is that it would allow me to experience something even more precious for a busy dad — the chance to connect with my 15-year-old son in ways that neither of us will ever forget.
The purpose of the Census 2020 Education initiative is straightforward. By connecting and collaborating with businesses, nonprofits, and education and faith leaders throughout Southwest Florida, The Patterson Foundation seeks to raise awareness about the importance of the census for our region and to increase census participation among all groups, especially those that historically have been undercounted. These include families with young children, people of color, older adults, college students, and residents living in poverty.
To achieve these goals, a partnership was formed with the Herald-Tribune earlier this year. It aimed to assist and amplify efforts already underway involving Census Complete Count Committees organized by local municipalities and is made up of an array of community representatives and organizations. Meetings were held, and a multi-pronged campaign was developed. A speaker’s bureau was created, and dates were scheduled for visits to churches, schools, and adult care facilities. Success seemed well in hand.
Then came COVID-19, and the world changed. Suddenly, plans for displays and information kiosks at spring training games, farmers’ markets, schools, churches, and other public gathering places became impossible. Mass awareness efforts were replaced by the need to individually deliver census materials to nonprofit organizations and others serving some of our community’s most vulnerable populations. That is where the story with my son, Will, begins.
Will jumped at the chance to get some driving experience while helping me deliver 20,000 census primers created by the Herald-Tribune and underwritten by The Patterson Foundation to community partners.
Always a curious kid with a yearning to understand the world around him, the trips soon became a sort of mobile classroom where we discussed everything from the history of the census to why it is so important for people to participate in it.
In case you don’t know, the answers are that the census was established in Article 1 of the Constitution and was first conducted in 1790. It is important because each year it helps determine nearly $1 trillion in federal funding for things like schools, hospitals, food and nutrition assistance programs, Medicare and Medicaid distributions, disaster relief, roadways and other vital community needs.
As we traveled the highways and back roads between Arcadia, Bradenton, Sarasota and Venice, Will and I also had a chance to discuss the books he has read about Old Florida and my own childhood memories of growing up here in the early 1970s, long before the arrival of Interstate 75 and when University Parkway was still a narrow two-lane strip called County Line Road.
Most important of all, though, was the opportunity it gave us to meet some of the less heralded but profoundly important members of our local communities. People like Clara Alvarez of Catholic Charities of DeSoto County, who helps make sure that migrant workers and their families have a place to live and enough to eat, and Debbie Deleon from Manatee County’s Neighborhood Services Office, who is doing her best to make sure that everyone in Manatee County is counted in this year’s census, regardless of his or her age, race or income level. There were also the staffs and leadership of organizations like Children First, Friendship Centers, the Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto County Libraries, DeSoto County Housing Authority, Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee and, of course, All Faith’s Food Bank.
Our takeaway was an appreciation for the multitude of people and organizations in our area who are committed to ensuring that everyone deserves a voice and to be counted. As we discussed so many times during our travels, that is the purpose of the census as well. To make sure that all are recognized and counted.
I hope that if you have not taken time to fill out your own census you will do so today, because everyone deserves to #BeCounted.
For more information, go to www.2020census.gov.