Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack & Cover Story 04-17-05 (column now will run 04-24-05 in Comm. Booster)
By Jeff Gill

Our house has a great many old things in it. Antiques? No. Neither the Lovely Wife or I have ever developed a taste for antiquing as a leisure time activity, nor the household income, and a six year old would constitute a running argument against having furniture or furnishings of value. But we have steadily accumulated tables, sideboards, rocking chairs, prints, and the odd chess set that all have a history behind them. Some began marriages for either of our parents, or were housekeeping materials for relatives and friends who passed them down until they reached us. Now, we see them as having reached their logical, and even final destination. To which the old adage says, “You want to hear God laugh? Make plans.” Yet each item has a place and relationship that fits together not just the here-and-now, but also ties a good hunk o’ past to our today. Aunt Alice Baldridge died last week. She was my father’s oldest sister, and lived most of her life in Portland, Oregon, so I didn’t know her as well as I might wish. Her mother died when she was quite young, and on her deathbed said to her husband that he would do well to marry her younger sister, and he did. They had five more children, with my dad bringing up the rear. So there was a quarter-century between them, and also some physical distance in that Alice Gill lost her hearing entirely, for reasons still unclear to me, and went to the Iowa School for the Deaf. There, with other hearing impaired young men and women, they learned a way of life and vocational skills that could allow them to live on their own. Part of those skills was a wood shop, and a story passed down in the family was that the fellow who oversaw the making of a set of furniture for each graduating student was sweet on Alice, but there was no feeling in return. The furniture, handmade but with a simple elegance, included a drop-leaf table now in our entryway. The other pieces, mostly unremembered, went their ways, but this little adaptable stand wandered through the family, with a long stop and my memories of it having a plant on it with a lace doily, near the phone table in Grandma Gill’s various homes. After Grandma Gill died, my dad ended up with that particular piece, heavily water-stained. It sat in the basement until the right time came, and my dad’s woodworking skills refinished and repaired it until it was fit for polite society again, or at least what passes for that in our home. By a quirk of timing, Aunt Alice’s Deaf School drop leaf table was the first item of furniture that entered our new house at the end of 2004, brought to Licking County by my folks. I’ve learned far too little signing from the Baldridge side of the family, although I have good memories of many occasions when the loquaciousness of all concerned meant that there was not an unwritten upon piece of paper anywhere in the house. A few words or phrases, flickers of the ASL alphabet relearned a dozen times, and the indelible cuss words learned from cousins is all I have in that line. The table is a quietly unremarkable piece of furniture, suitable for scribbling a note on the corner, or perching a ceramic pitcher with fake flowers (no more potted plants Dad, I promise). I don’t think about all of this each time I pass it by, but amazingly often most of this and more flash through my mind on the way from upstairs to down. It’s just an old table? Sure. I think of my Aunt Alice as my folks head to Oregon for the funeral, and wonder, too, did the fellow who made it ever find the woman of his dreams, and give her a table of her own? Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; to drop a story in the knapsack, e-mail disciple@voyager.net.

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Booster Cover 04-16-05
By Jeff Gill

Your Responsibility, Their Commitment

“There are women paying child support, more than when I started here in 1991,” says Nancy Johnson, director of the Licking County Child Support Enforcement Agency (CSEA), part of the Domestic Relations Court of Licking County.
Whether women or men, fulfilling their child support obligation or reporting the failure of others to make their payments, the work of this office, just a block east of the Courthouse, is unified by one fact.
“We do what the courts tell us,” says Johnson.
“State law and court orders tell us what to do, and we’re here to make sure it gets done.”
Johnson oversees a staff of 73 employees who are all working to make sure that up to 50,000 children in Licking County are receiving court ordered child support from non-custodial parents.
All the numbers related to divorce and child support are staggering. CSEA handles over 14,000 cases, which can include anywhere from one to ten children. Due to overlaps and repetition between cases, the actual number of children receiving child support is difficult to figure with precision, hence the range of 30,000 to 50,000.
2,000 cases at any given time are in the Legal Division, represented by a main floor room filled wall to wall, floor to ceiling with file folders side by side on tight packed shelving. (“You should see the basement,” observed a staffer in passing as Johnson led a quick tour of the office space.)
“We pick up women on felony non-support, too,” Johnson notes, while also describing the work in this room as including establishment of paternity, contempt of court actions relating to non-response and other enforcement actions.
Case managers through the building average 970 cases apiece, with the state guideline preferring less than 500, “but that’s true in all 88 counties, sad to say,” Johnson adds.
The lobby open to East Main Street is a well-lit, spacious room with children’s toys and chairs. “No one comes here to get child support checks,” she explains, “but we offer assistance in a wide variety of areas relating to our responsibilities,” with a special counselor available for walk-ins to assist with applications, forms, and follow-up paperwork.
“Licking County is still a very cash oriented economy in many ways,” explains Johnson, “so while most child support is handled by payroll withholding and sent through the Columbus system for checks to the custodial parent, there are still quite a few who need to come in and make their payments in cash after payday.”
Whether to make payments or investigate the reasons for problems in receiving court ordered payment, the CSEA office is open from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, from 7:30 am to 7:00 pm Thursday, and from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm on Friday.
“We learned from our clients that it is very helpful to them on both ends of the process to have us open one evening a week, so that’s what we did,” Johnson says proudly. Though allocated more staff by state formulas, they try to stay within minimum budget while offering maximum service.
“Our main contact point is with the mothers and fathers, but what really motivates us here is to help the children. That’s what keeps most of us working each day.”
While working closely with Judges Steiner and Baldwin of the Domestic Relations Court, their “bosses,” CSEA also works with Licking County Job & Family Services (JFS) and other initiatives in the county like the Interfaith Legal Aid Clinics that are held each month at a different location around the county. They are entirely separate from Child Protective Services, which is housed within JFS at a different location.
“We can work with clients to get clarification, but not as an advocate. This agency is closely defined as to what we can do in relation to the court orders surrounding custody and payment; our job is to make sure that gets carried out,” notes Johnson. While they can’t fill out legal paperwork for a client, they can point them to where they can get assistance such as the free legal clinics.
What a client can do at CSEA is report non-payment, request reviews of income after three years or a 30% increase in the income of one of the parents, or get assistance with paternity related issues that includes free genetic testing. Any party to an action in court documents can get printouts of payment information through their office as well.
Depending on how you read the data, CSEA is playing an important role in the lives of up to half the children in Licking County, making them a major, if largely unnoticed (and unappreciated!) strand in our social fabric today.
“People often are not happy about dealing with us, but we try not to take it personally,” Johnson admits. “I’m very proud of my staff for how friendly and positive an attitude they maintain, and we hope that helps both the clients and the children in the long run, too.”

Monday, April 11, 2005

Faith Works 04-16-05
By Jeff Gill

Church news is usually not the breaking headline kind of stuff.
“Looking Over Our Shoulder” is, in fact, a pretty common feature of the local congregational publication; and newsletter bloopers are, oddly enough, a staple of newsletter content.
What makes for effective communication in a church is a point of frequent debate not just in the parish office but even at staff meetings and even when the board comes together.
Specialists in such things will strongly recommend lots of “white space,” or large borders around blocks of text, and simple graphics that reproduce well on the kind of technology used in churches. Old timers who will otherwise bemoan how small print is everywhere else will see “waste” if the page is not a dense block of 10-point type, and ask how much was paid for those “squiggles a child could draw.”
“Your basic question is who do you want to reach with this communication method,” says Angela Herrman, with the "Disciples Home Missions" of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “Are you doing your newsletter to reach new members with basic information they don’t know and people may forget to tell them, or are you publishing it to reaffirm to long-time members that we’re still doing what they already know their church is doing?”
The problem here, I pointed out, is that the correct answer for most churches is “both.”
“That’s right, so you need to have sections, with a familiar header or logo, that recur each week or month, so those who don’t have kids can easily skip the Youth News and young families can find the Coming Events.”
And the pastor’s column?
“Short. Short is key, because the newsletter isn’t where people turn for theological analysis or an extra sermon. Point them to where they can find those things, but don’t try to do it all in long blocks of text.”
Which, she says, is important for all age groups or levels of church familiarity. Bullet points, highlighted phrases, and, oh yes, lots of white space around key articles.
“This is not as much of a literacy-based culture as it once was, and people’s eyes tend to dance around. Text blocks make their eyes skip and slide to the next image or margin.”
The problem, I can attest, is that those of us who tend to write for newsletters love words and writing and information, and assume that most people want as much to read as we do.
In newsletters, words can get in the way of good communication.
Francis of Assisi knew this, too: I’m told that he once said “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”
That would make a good masthead quote for a church newsletter!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; to share your church news or notes with him, e-mail disciple@voyager.net.