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At the Point of Connection
There may technically be an “I” in CHOICE, but this Uniontown nonprofit puts its focus on “us.”
“And that means all of us,” says Emefa Butler, founder and executive director of CHOICE (Choosing to Help Others In Our Community Excel). This inclusive mindset is evident in everything Butler does and equally clear in the expansive nature of the organization’s mission. “We partner with many other agencies and groups to ensure access to services and to stretch services so they can go farther and reach more. We are really a connection to resources and a bridge to cover gaps.”
CHOICE has been doing its work in Uniontown since 2017, creating partnerships that bring people and vital programs, activities and services together. The focus is on youth, with an emphasis on six essential components: workforce development, mentoring, education, cultural arts, health and wellness, and athletics and recreation.
“We are really a connection to resources and a bridge to cover gaps.”
– Emefa Butler, founder and executive director of CHOICE
While the organization’s big, broad branches cover a lot, its roots are sunk deep in Butler’s love of her hometown and her passion for helping people – particularly kids – become self-sufficient.
After high school Butler left Uniontown, for Alabama State University (ASU) and later transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. While serving as operations manager at an investment firm in Birmingham, she was also volunteering in an underserved community in that city, where she learned about various nonprofits and the needs they meet. In 2009 her thoughts turned back toward Uniontown. “I wondered, ‘How can I take all this and use it to help people at home?’” Those musings grew into CHOICE.
When Butler founded CHOICE, she was still in Birmingham, working, giving back to the community and raising her son. She was helping kids in Uniontown from afar with projects like CHOICE’s backpack drives. “We’d get donated school supplies, stuff them in nice, new backpacks and get those to students in Uniontown,” she says.
Butler vowed to move back to Uniontown when her son graduated high school. In 2017, he got his diploma and Butler kept her promise. A year later, with funding from the Alabama Power Foundation, CHOICE transformed an old doctor’s office into its community center and made the vision of a more impactful CHOICE a reality.
- Emefa Butler, founder and executive director of CHOICE
As CHOICE considered the most effective ways to make a difference, Butler quickly realized that a lack of information was as problematic as a lack of resources. “There are all kinds of programs and organizations out there offering an array of assistance, but people didn’t know about them or they didn’t know how to connect with them. So that became the goal: to provide some resources but to also partner with existing resources in those six key areas to increase access to them.”
The first branch to sprout on CHOICE’s giving tree was an emphasis on education; Butler wanted to tackle the climbing college dropout rate among Uniontown students. “So, we created Educate Through College, which places these kids with mentors who help them get through that first year and continue to give the encouragement and advice they need to keep going,” she says. Other education-centered initiatives include after-school programs that make computers (located in the community center) and tutoring available to area students.
CHOICE has a youth advisory committee comprised of students in ninth through 12th grades. “It’s education but falls under our mentoring mission, too,” Butler says. Every year, the committee is tasked with planning and hosting a community service event and given $500 to do it. Committee members also volunteer at the center and assist with other events. These activities not only mean CHOICE can touch more lives, they also build character and leadership skills. After committee members finish their term, they can apply for a $1,000 scholarship and participate in a special retreat. “This year, they put on a community book fair, with free books, hot dogs, cotton candy and more,” Butler says. “These kinds of events are beneficial to the community but really engage the students themselves and teach them the value of service in a hands-on way.”
For Nevaeh Foster, her time at CHOICE and participating in the committee made an indelible impression. The high school graduate is headed to ASU to study accounting. “CHOICE extends so many opportunities to its volunteers, and that’s what first really attracted me to it, but I’ve learned how important the resources it provides are,” she says. “It does a lot for kids in our community and our schools. And providing computers and printers for people at the community center – it sounds small, but it’s a huge thing for a lot of people. I now understand how key service is. It’s something I want to continue throughout my life.”
Simply being around Butler has also made a permanent mark. “The experience learning under Emefa has impacted me a great deal,” Foster says. “Her willingness to give and give is such an inspiration. I love how she came home and did what she did by starting CHOICE.”
In 2020, CHOICE homed in on civic education, working to spread the word about participating in the census and registering to vote. “We went door-to-door to provide information and were able to give some of our community members a stipend to help with those efforts,” Butler says.
Improving the overall health of those in Uniontown is another cornerstone of CHOICE’s mission. The organization collaborates with Project Horseshoe Farm, a nonprofit working to improve healthcare outcomes of vulnerable populations. CHOICE is tapping that program’s fellows – students taking a year out of their medical, nursing, health management or related studies to serve.
“We have 31 seniors they check on weekly, just making sure they are taking their meds, seeing if they need a ride to the doctor,” Butler says. “And they take them items from our food pantry.”
She notes that the Alabama Power Foundation helped make the partnership with Horseshoe Farm happen. “The opportunity to work with Horseshoe Farm came to us through the foundation. They connected us to that resource. Really, anytime they see anything come across their desk that can help people in Uniontown, they send that our way so we can reach out and get those resources here.”
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic tested the organization’s ability to serve the community.
While donations dropped some, the decline wasn’t significant, and being more resource- versus program-based, CHOICE can operate on a limited budget. Still, to do more took more.
“COVID woke us up,” Butler says. “We realized we still needed to do a lot more for the people here.”
– Emefa Butler, founder and executive director of CHOICE
“We put all these new things in place to address what we were seeing, so we did need additional funds. But we got them, and I believe our past good stewardship made that possible.
“The Alabama Power Foundation played a big role in our COVID programs last year, and we’re so appreciative,” Butler says. Among them, CHOICE continued its focus on education, which was an immediate and dire need for Uniontown with the move to all-virtual school. “It became apparent that a lot of our students didn’t have computers or tablets or access to internet,” Butler says. Inside its community center, CHOICE had space to safely set up computer stations for 13 students who spent their entire day at the center, doing math and reading enrichment activities in addition to their classroom work. And, the students were able to safely enjoy recreation time outside. “This has proven very helpful for these students. They really needed the socialization.”
CHOICE also loaned out laptops and tablets and boosted the community center’s Wi-Fi, allowing students to sit outside the center and get online to complete schoolwork. CHOICE also helped the local school system, with partners, equip four buses with Wi-Fi so they could be dispatched to remote areas to provide internet access.
Ensuring students could keep learning was a major undertaking, but CHOICE also was able to address COVID-specific needs, such as making virus testing and vaccination easier for Uniontown residents. “A lot of our people don’t have reliable transportation, so we needed testing to come to them,” Butler says. Never shy about seeking solutions, she persuaded a medical provider 20 miles away to come and help. And when vaccinations began, and transportation was again an issue, CHOICE organized a vaccine clinic in Uniontown.
“We really thought basic needs like getting people fed were taken care of, but they weren’t. With jobs lost and incomes down, the need got too big.” So, CHOICE started a drive-through food distribution program. Today, it is still providing food for almost 300 people a month.
“This community is so supportive of all we do. That’s the only way this works. It’s not ‘me’ or ‘them.’ It’s not ‘I.’ It’s us, all of us, working together.” – Emefa Butler, founder and executive director of CHOICE
The pandemic and the deficiencies it spotlighted brought renewed attention to the community’s health needs. Butler feels an urgency to help people get and stay healthier. “I want to add nutrition and cooking classes,” she says. Construction will also begin soon on an outdoor exercise facility at the community center.
CHOICE also continues to grow its workforce branch. “We want people to see what they have to contribute, how they can take their interests and use that to empower themselves,” Butler says. To this end, the organization is adding classes to teach people how to use the internet to build skills and seek opportunities.
Butler’s first love – working with students – deepened in 2020, but the pandemic widened her vision.
“I love mentoring and I love helping kids see and realize their potential,” she says. “But last year, we had to open things up some and help with what our people were facing right then. The COVID testing and food distribution were critical for our community.”
As Butler shares what CHOICE has accomplished and what she hopes it will do in the future, she praises the organization’s multiple partners, and Uniontown itself.
“It’s so rewarding to receive all the help we do. That’s how we help others,” she says. “And this community is so supportive of all we do. That’s the only way this works. It’s not ‘me’ or ‘them.’ It’s not ‘I.” It’s us, all of us, working together.”