Newly appointed executive director Katie Jo Ballard will be the first to tell you that the Georgia Office of Children and Families (GOCF) has a heck of a job. Since 2008 the organization has been charged with implementing “a spectrum of prevention, intervention, and treatment services for all children” in Georgia.
That means identifying effective programs and delivering funding across four areas of service: youth development, family violence, juvenile justice, and prevention programs.
“We’re looking for people that can provide 360 kinds of care for a family,” says Ballard. “Like really wrap themselves around a family and support them in every aspect.”
The GOCF doesn’t deliver any services directly. Rather, the organization distributes a combination of federal and state funds to community-based programs through a competitive grant process.
Since taking office in mid-August, Ballard has been trying to wrap her head around everything the organization does. The agency offers so many grants in so many areas, and some of those grantees offer sub-grants, she says, so there’s a lot to take in.
“I’m a very visual person, so I’m actually going out there and trying to visit sites so I can see what they do,” she says. “That’s what’s been the most rewarding to me, actually meeting a survivor of domestic violence, meeting a child that survived sexual exploitation, hearing those stories and how our programs have helped them… That’s the best part, but it’s also the hardest.”
The GOCF was created to streamline the process of delivering services to needy kids in the state. The initiative combined the Children’s Trust Fund Commission and the Children and Youth Coordinating Council while promoting interagency collaboration between a number of governmental bodies to fill in the gaps.
August was a big month for the agency. Ballard took the reigns as executive director and Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal signed on to chair the GOCF’s advisory board. Together the two have be traveling the state, checking out community programs and how the impact the kids they’re designed to serve. Most recently they, along with state school superintendent John Barge, toured school facilities in and around the governor’s hometown of Gainesville.
In the short-term, Ballard hopes to streamline the internal processes of the organization, while continually fine-tuning programs around the state. One example she gave sprang from a recent visit to a GED program set up for alumni of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) system. Students in the program work through the same curriculum as high school students, yet earn a GED instead of a diploma.
“It was an easy fix,” she says, involving a little bit of red tape that “could easily be taken down.”
For a relatively new agency that deals in so many different areas one of the biggest challenges in the long run, she admits, is raising awareness within communities around the state. Greater awareness and understanding of what they do will lead to more grant applications, increasing the competitiveness and eventually leading to better and strong programs in the community, she says.
As for the communities, well, their biggest problems seem to fall right in line with a slow economy. Employment and education, “which are both intertwined,” are prominent themes and can impact whole families, not just the parents.
In that respect, the GOCF asserts the "families" aspect of their title. Grant programs focus on parent education as well as kids, which all goes back to the “360” degrees of service the organization aims to achieve community by community, grant by grant.
A native of rural Habersham County (Ga.), Ballard has worked as the governor’s director of constituent services since he took office in January of 2011.
When the former GOCF executive director left to start a family of her own, Ballard saw the “opportunity to really serve” the public and put her master's degree in public health to good use -- not to mention her life-long passion for helping kids.
“Throughout my life I’ve always volunteered somewhere with kids,” Ballard says. “In high school I had like 5,000 hours of community services. That’s where my passion is. I kept the kids at church and… I’ve just always volunteered.”
“I’ve known the governor a long time and I’m dedicated to his mission for Georgia too,” she says. “As long as the governor is in office I plan on being here.”