JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Legislators and community leaders gathered at the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) in Johnson City on Monday to announce how a $25 million grant from the Department of Human Services will be used.

“The Temporary Assitance for Needy Families (TANF) has been in place for a while so this is just really a build on that type of a model to help more people,” said Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy. “A big portion of what the Development District does is help support our aging population with Meals on Wheels and other things and they are in a perfect position to be able to disperse funds, account for the funds and be sure they go to the right place for the right reasons.”

It’s part of a three-year pilot initiative that aims to help low-income families and redefine how TANF benefits are distributed.

“We have always struggled with income for as long as I could remember,” said Karalyn Alphin in the video for FTDD’s presentation for the grant. “Being a teen mom was hard. I had two kids by the age of 21. Although I attended college after high school, I did not complete a degree yet. I was often left working multiple jobs and was still struggling to make ends meet.”

Alphin lives in Erwin with her husband and four kids. Her family’s story helped the FTDD and Strong Accountability Care Community (STRONG ACC) win the grant.

“I believe this program would be incredibly beneficial for families like mine…helping them weave through all their wants and needs as a family,” Alphin explained. “It would be like hitting the easy button on life for people who are struggling and not aware of resources out there.”

The FTDD and STRONG ACC was one of 80 applicants and one of seven grant recipients across the state.

“You need to listen to people who are trying to knock down those barriers and who just say time after time that they need somebody to walk alongside them,” said Lottie Ryans, the director of workforce and literacy initiatives for the FTDD. “A real critical piece of that was using a family-designed advisor, that was a family member who was actually a TANF recipient who could review the things we were working on and say, ‘That works, you’re not trusting us here, this would be a better way.’ Without the work of folks like Karalyn and others who are engaged in stakeholder engagement, I don’t know that we would’ve had such a strong proposal.”

The STRONG ACC is a collaborative group made up of more than 325 organizations across the region with various goals.

“We can deliver smart, compassionate assistance that removes barriers and gives families power, control and resources to get ahead and stay ahead,” said STRONG ACC Director Mark Cruise. “We will work with families that want to get ahead and stay ahead but who have been demoralized by a system of public assistance that doesn’t quite work for them and keeps them from realizing their full potential.”

“We have too many families living in poverty to be very frank…through whatever reason, whether it be generational poverty, through lack of acceptance of education, through whatever reason, through health issues,” said state Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville). “We want to focus on the needs of every family living in poverty to try to raise them up and bring them to a level where they’re self-sufficient.”

It will also help provide cash directly to families to help remove barriers, buy food, make car repairs, job training, childcare, and needs of that nature.

“Some of the biggest needs that we’ve heard as we’ve interviewed families: transportation, high-quality daycare, having just a little bit more month than they have money…so trying to help folks bridge that financial cliff to where we make sense for them to stay in the workforce as opposed to them drop out and go onto full-blown public assistance,” Hawk said. “We’re hoping to help families through some of those small ways that are going to be big advantages in their lives to come.”

The third component will help fund mental health services with a dedicated delivery system with Frontier Health to provide rapid mental health services as needed. Ballad Health is also a partner through the STRONG ACC.

“There’s this intersection of education, economics, and health and that if one is poor, the others are poor,” said Paula Masters, vice president of health programs for Ballad Health. “They’re all affected, they’re all interrelated so if you focus on improving education, health rises as well. The same thing if you improve someone’s health, they are more likely to get higher levels of education and be more economically vital. Even though we have some facilities located in these rural areas, it’s that on the groundwork with these community organizations where we really look at health equity, where we look at breaking down rural disparities, such as this program, really working with families to bring them to a state of self-sufficiency, better health and really the higher level of economic status.”

Some money will even go to groups with niche focuses like the Action Coalition which aids in prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts in Johnson County.

“We’ll be able to provide additional assistance to those seeking substance use disorder treatment,” said Executive Director Trish Burchette. “We have a lot of people in our communities that have issues with substance use disorder and they just don’t have the resources available to help them. It will provide additional resources for those low-income families that need assistance. We are one of the more rural and we are one of the communities that has the lowest pay scale in the community.”

The FTDD serves eight Northeast Tennessee Counties: Washington, Sullivan, Carter, Greene, Johnson, Unicoi, Hancock, and Hawkins.

“Poverty and some of those things that hinder people doesn’t know zip codes or doesn’t know county lines so it just has been distributed over all the 8 counties,” said Mike Taylor, the mayor of Johnson County. “Being from a small rural community like Johnson County, we do have a number of people that are going to qualify for this help, and what I see it to be is a life changer. We have people in Johnson County that are very much in need of financial help.”

The groups coming together to get the grant shows regionalism in a different light.

“This shows what regionalism can do,” Hawk said. “We had our eight counties in Northeast Tennessee come together along with Cocke County and Hamblen County just to our west to say, ‘We want to be able to help families in our region and this is how we are going to do it.’ Over 300 organizations are going to partner with this. This is regionalism at its best.”

State Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) says this was years in the making.

“A couple of years ago, we found that there were $700 million-plus, really $740 million that wasn’t being used that should be used for needy families,” Crowe said. “It was rolling over every year and just building up and the program wasn’t just developed in the right way to make sure that these dollars were used so when we found that, we put together a group to try to decide how we can get this money to needy families so we can get them out of poverty.”

Lawmakers and leaders say about 1,000 families across the region will be impacted in the next 1,000 days, leaving a lasting impression.