Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment
Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE) was founded in 2001 when two local clergy, one Catholic priest and one African American Baptist pastor, came together and began voicing concerns about overwhelming problems in the community. PEACE exists in Polk County as a vehicle for congregations to do effective and powerful justice ministry. Currently, PEACE has 19 member congregations that are located throughout Polk County, representing over 10,000 residents and are diverse in their socio-economic, racial, denominational and geographic backgrounds. Congregations in PEACE work together to build relationships with one another, listen to common concerns, research community problems, and then take action to see that systems in the community are held accountable to principles of justice and get to the root cause of serious problems. PEACE also strengthens leadership among minorities, low-income individuals and others suffering from prejudice, oppression, and neglect as it provides an avenue for those who are usually voiceless to take a powerful role in transforming their community.
Since PEACE’s beginning in 2001, we have taken successful action on several community issues. Listed below is a sample of some of the issue victories of the organization.
Healthcare: Polk County has the first and third busiest emergency rooms in the state of Florida and there are over 100,000 people without insurance or insufficient insurance coverage.
In March of 2004, PEACE and other allies worked to get a ½ cent sales tax referendum passed that would increase funds for indigent healthcare; it initially had a very slim chance of passing but passed with 62% of the vote. The tax brings in about $30 million dollars a year and in 2014 alone it provided 364,374 services and served 46,845 people.
At the 2005 Action, PEACE received a commitment from county commissioners to open primary care clinics. Through funds from the half cent sales tax, three clinics have opened.
The Lakeland Primary Care Clinic began accepting patients in November 2007; in 2014, the clinic treated 6,177 unique patients.
The Winter Haven Clinic began accepting patients in May 2011; in 2014, the clinic treated 4,138 unique patients.
The Lakeland Family Health Center began accepting patients in July 2012. In January 2014, it moved to a larger building that accommodates more patients, and served 29,800 people that year.
Two Health Department clinics also expanded services to include primary care in Haines City and Lakeland, beginning in 2013, which impacts underserved parts of the county.
Drug Rehabilitation: Over 40,000 people are addicted to drugs and alcohol in Polk County. 10,000 people leaving the jails every year would seek treatment if it were available to them. However, when we began to look at the problem, there were only 25 in-patient rehabilitation beds and all were reserved for women.
In 2009, Commissioner Bob English and the County staff committed to adding 100 in-patient drug rehabilitation beds to help people break the cycle of addiction. In 2011, 50 beds were opened for men and an additional 48 beds were opened for women in 2012 through the Hope Now program. In 2014, the program served 500 families and had 38 graduates.
Beginning in 2001 and continuing on in the years 2008-2010, PEACE also prevented funding for the in-jail substance abuse program (JASA) from being cut from the budget. In 2014, JASA had 221 admissions for treatment services and 127 men and women graduated the program.
Youth Arrests: Polk has the highest rate of youth arrests in Florida. There were 210 children under the age of 12 arrested in 2013 and 17% of all arrests came from the schools. Of those school-based-arrests, 75% were non-serious misdemeanors. In Florida, 54 other counties have been successful in bringing down the number of youth arrests for minor offenses by using a pre-arrest diversion program that prevents an arrest record and improves linkages among stakeholders. In 2013, 975 youth were eligible for this pre-arrest diversion program in Polk County but, instead, they were given life-long arrest records for minor offenses.
In March 2014, the Superintendent of schools committed to implement best practices to reduce school based arrests and the Sheriff committed to work with other stakeholders to create a database for law enforcement to use that would ensure more children receive pre-arrest diversions. In August 2014, the Superintendent made it possible for children in schools to access Teen Court, the current diversion program. At PEACE’s urging, Teen Court removed their age restrictions to allow children under the age of 10. The Polk County Court administration created and funded a Teen Court database that the Sheriff committed to use so that children would be diverted prior to an arrest is ever made. Since PEACE began pressing the issue, youth arrests for minor offenses have decreased 23%.
PO Box 1928
Lakeland, FL 33803