Member News

Whitley County Tackles Skilled Labor Shortages, Jail Recidivism, and Youth Trauma

Sunday, November 22, 2020
Whitco Career Academy

An initiative spearheaded by Community Foundation of Whitley County is breathing new life into their Northeast Indiana community. It’s bringing together local funders, elected officials, corrections leaders, judges, service providers, educators, employers and healthcare professionals to align resources. These groups are working under an umbrella—free from silos, egos, or agendas—for the betterment of those calling Whitley County home.

In early 2017, Whitley County began to experience a series of concerning events. The county unemployment rate dipped below 3% while the list of unfilled, skilled labor jobs grew exponentially. The County jail had the highest recidivism rate (77%) in the state of Indiana. A local elementary school requested funding to expand a before- and after-school program because it was safer for students to stay at school than to be at home. One of the County’s three local school districts was forced to close their middle school building because of declining enrollment. The Indiana Hospital Association identified Whitley County as having an extraordinarily high rate of opiate prescriptions. The local public community mental health organization offered no effective substance abuse treatment. The Whitley County Department of Children’s Services tripled their staff size to accommodate the snowballing number of children requiring their intervention.

The time for courageous leadership had come.

After convening a community forum to more fully understand resident needs, the Community Foundation of Whitley County, led by CEO September McConnell, took aim and coordinated a strategic community framework known as Next Level Whitley County. Goals of the framework include reducing jail recidivism, addressing employment shortages in their manufacturing community, and combating the growing burden on social service organizations that are seeing increased trauma in local youth.

Soon after the formation of Next Level Whitley County, solutions began to surface.

New programs and services were created for children affected by trauma, incarceration, and addiction. The closed school building was re-opened as a career academy offering job training and certifications to both adults and high school students. A new Local Option Income Tax (LOIT) was passed that will generate much needed funding for expanded community corrections services. New mental health and substance abuse services have started in Whitley County and will be available to inmates in the jail. And the local homeless shelter re-launched as a licensed residential recovery center and identified a three-year plan to expand their service platform.

In 2020, Whitley County, like the rest of the world, has been hit with increased stress, instability, and hardship brought on by COVID-19. Next Level Whitley County’s vision for community investment and support for vulnerable residents is timelier than ever, and projects spawning from the initiative are taking shape. 

Improving Local Economy and Addressing Employment Shortages 

One of Next Level Whitley County’s most prominent projects has been the launch of Whitko Career Academy in Fall 2020.

A part of Whitko Community Schools, covering Kosciusko and Whitley Counties, the academy helps students test and identify career pathways as early as eighth grade. Focuses include health services, agriculture, engineering, skilled trades, and public services, such as business law, culinary arts, and cosmetology. Those enrolled use state-of-the-art technology and equipment, and have access to superior instructors and mentors embedded in the local workforce. Students can graduate with associate degrees along with skills that can immediately lead to strong living wages right in the area—a region boasting the world’s top orthopedic companies and expanding agribusiness.

The academy includes an impressive agriculture lab—fully equipped to house livestock—and a greenhouse for planting and seed production. Here, students learn the business of agriculture and how to operate heavy machinery. They even have the opportunity to sustain shrimp farms and hydroponics, while helping manage related budgets and revenue. 


To fund the academy, the community foundation teamed up with philanthropic partner 80/20 Foundation Trust, who invested over $2.8 million into the project. This was one of the largest grants given and received inside of Whitley County. Supporting the academy was a perfect match for the newly formed foundation, which is on a mission to strengthen Northeast Indiana’s manufacturing sector. 

80/20 Foundation Trust was formed after Whitley County’s largest employer, 80/20 Inc., became an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) in 2016. With the foundation, founder Don Wood hoped to create opportunities for students that allow them to pursue careers in industrial trades, advanced manufacturing, leadership, and innovation.

Other new funding support has come to Whitko, including the largest Career Ladders Grant in Indiana. Funds allow the school system to raise staff salaries throughout the district, provide quality professional development, and increase new teacher salaries—the first time in seven years—to be among the most competitive in the area. A victory for all, students benefit from trained teachers who are among the top paid professionals in their field, and the community attracts top candidates within the school.

Supporting Social Service Organizations Seeing Increased Trauma in Youth

One of the catalysts in starting the work included in Next Level Whitley County was the plea from an elementary school principal who was concerned for the safety of students living in an eroding mobile-home park. Those discussions led to the opening of a new community center in September 2020. The center is planted directly within this neighborhood to better support the people living there. The structure was donated by local business Whitley Manufacturing.

Running programs through the community center is Mission 25, a nonprofit that has long provided pathways of prevention, transition, and restoration for local homeless people. A GIFT VII implementation grant by Whitley County Community Foundation allows the center to hire new staff as their programming expands. The first hire is someone who came out of that same troubled neighborhood. Overcoming adversity and graduating with a degree, this person is dedicated to helping others navigate similar hardships. Not only do they serve as a role model for youth in the neighborhood, they’re offering a level of trust and comfort. 

Reducing Jail Recidivism

In an effort to address jail overcrowding and a high recidivism rate, the Whitley County Community Foundation is working with community corrections to coordinate plans for a new work release center. Breaking ground in 2021, the center will be built around a therapeutic community model. This new approach to corrections embraces support for mental health, substance abuse, and vocational training. 

Ultimately, the program will connect with the Whitko Career Academy to offer skills training and certifications for adults, as well as Mission 25 for on-going support services as inmates transition back into the community. Adult classes at the academy will be run by Freedom Academy. Specializing in workforce certifications and professional development throughout Northeast Indiana, this nonprofit has long been supported by another important local funder and convener—Dekko Foundation

Whitley County Community Foundation’s leadership role under CEO September McConnell in shepherding key players and aligning resources has been a critical component in making these projects happen. This work requires a passion for community, an ability to inspire others to join in promising solutions, and a long-term mindset to make lasting change. All characteristics community philanthropy is made for.

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