Cawaco quietly funds many small projects


While many would like to have a $1 million grant, most small rural entities - fire departments, town council, non-profits - have small projects that may get lost in the shuffle, but would serve to enrich their communities, even if they only cost a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.

That is where Cawaco comes in - although few know much about it, as it has admittedly been operating in a low-key manner for years. For Fiscal 2018, it provided $33,340 for a total of seven Walker County projects. A total of $40,544.86 in grants was announced this month, to be spent over 10 projects for the Fiscal 2019 year. 

Cawaco is actually the Cawaco Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Council, Inc., based in Birmingham in the Five Points area. It was formed in 1979 and serves Walker, Blount, Chilton, Jefferson and Shelby counties, providing funds for a range of projects. Many of those financial contributions are only from $2,000 to $5,000, but have been helpful for the programs addressed. 

The communities also have other resources, such as other funds or contributed labor, and Cawaco officials also help in recognizing how to use their resources on projects, including how to account for them in order to go for larger grants. 

"It means a significant difference to a small community," said Kellie Johnston, executive director of Cawaco, who discussed the program on Monday in Jasper, with Paul Kennedy next to her.

Kennedy is now the executive director of the Walker Area Community Foundation, but he was, starting for a time in 1993, the project coordinator for Cawaco, and still has active ties to the program as a board member. "He taught me everything I know," Johnston said.

Both of the officials have been associated with the program for about a decade, with Kennedy noting Johnston is good at grants and documentation for the needs. 

Kennedy recalled that the name was taken in parts from area rivers: The Cahaba River, the Warrior River and the Coosa River, in that order. As part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, the nation's RC&D councils were created through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help rural areas. However, one for this area was not created until Cawaco came into being in 1979. 

From 1979 until the mid-1990s, small federal appropriations were coming down for the RC&D councils, which had de facto board members, such as each county commission chairman, the chairman of the Soil and Water Conservation District in each county, making up a board of 10 to decide allocations. 

"Around 1993 or so, those funds ran out. There were no more (federal) appropriations," Kennedy said. "We looked around and the choice was fold or get serious." 

A decision was made to bring on five more board members, all at-large, who could bring new ideas and additional energy to the table, he said. Foundations and grants were identified, but to get those funds Cawaco had to be organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in 1994. 

"Since that time, (Cawaco) has been very aggressive about getting in money in order to do those priority things that have been identified by the community as important," Kennedy said. "Kellie has done a lot of watershed improvement work and a lot of alternative ag enterprises, from shiitake mushrooms to crayfish and catfish — anything that would help those rural areas take advantage of the assets they already have." 

RC&Ds across the state have taken similar actions to go non-profit, and nine such non-profit RC&D councils have been able to cover all 67 counties — which Kennedy noted compares better than other states, where some rural areas are still not covered. "Alabama is very fortunate," Johnston said. 

Johnston said funds are allocated by the state and the Alabama Association of Resource Conservation & Development Council to grant out to small communities and non-profits. Overall, the program takes in $400,000 a year, Johnston said. 

"What we are looking for are those small projects where a little bit of money will make a significant difference," she said. "Our mission is to find those projects because they can't get a larger grant from (the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, known as ADECA) to do what they need to do. They are not big enough to do that. Sometimes, they don't have the administrative experience to apply for a grant and manage it." 

Projects are identified many times through board members and Cawaco makes requests for proposals to communities, she said, with the ideas going through a competitive process for funding. Legislators, who also heard constantly from constituents about needs, also pass along those ideas to Cawaco. 

"What I do more is project development," she said, "where you have a smaller community with a greater need other than $2,000 to $5,000. We work with that community to find out what they need and how they can work within that system. But we will reach out to other partners, such as the community foundation or ADECA, ADEM (the Alabama Department of Environmental Management), or other foundations to meet their needs. In the project development arena, we act as a hub to pull in those resources and partners." 

Some of the resources are not financial, Johnston noted, such as experience, technical assistance or other items. 

"The council is very adept at working with the communities to help them frame their need into a doable proposal, and then to help them get the funds to do it," Kennedy said. 

Cawaco reviewed more than 70 proposals this year, funding 38 of them at between $2,000 to $5,000 each, Johnston said.

However, some special projects get higher funding. Johnston was proud of a $25,000 gift to Alabama Public Television for marketing materials for its free GED program that also helps get people into the community college system.

"They didn't have the budget to let people know marketing-wise that it was available," she said. Posters put up at shopping centers, co-ops, clinics and such, as well as radio ads, resulted in a "significant jump of people inquiring about their GED."

She also noted Dora officials came to Cawaco and got a $5,000 grant several years ago for resurface the Dora walking trail. "A lot of people use that trail and Dora is very proud of that. We're proud to be a part of that," she said. 

Johnston said they do a number of projects for volunteer fire departments, as they don't have many resources for the equipment needed to meet ISO fire ratings standards that lowers insurance premiums. 

In June and July, entities start submitting proposals for the grant process, which starts in July. "They will know by Oct. 1 if they can start their project," she said, noting Cawaco's board decides who is awarded a grant. 

Besides Kennedy, Dwight Hicks, representing Walker County Soil and Water Conservation, and Jasper City Planner Keith Pike serve on the board from Walker County. Walker County Chairman Jerry Bishop had also served on the board, but that seat representing the commission is now vacant. Kennedy said the commission can appoint a representative to the board. 

Johnston credited Kennedy with still being active in helping Cawaco, noting he is plugged into the community. Kennedy noted the Walker Area Community Foundation, which sponsored community planning efforts with Cheryl Morgan in Oakman, Sipsey, Nauvoo and Parrish, will now turn to Cawaco for helping to fund some of the projects that arose from those recent planning sessions and reports. He passed on a list of simple projects to Johnston this week that he said he would love to get various assistance from Cawaco.

He noted the ideas can range from planting trees in Sipsey to putting in a farmer's market in Oakman. Kennedy said he is also hopeful that Oakman can take advantage of the fact that "10s of thousands of people go through every game day. Northwest Alabama has to go through Oakman to get to Tuscaloosa." 

Anyone interested with talking with Cawaco about a project may make an appointment to see Johnston at her Five Points office at 2112 11th Ave. S., Suite 541 in Birmingham or call her at 205-623-0457. They may also go to the website, or to Cawaco.RCD on Facebook.