Polk vision’s executive. Director Sara Roberts on meeting the county’s challenges, engaging current leaders through leadership Polk, and inspiring new leaders through The Randy Roberts foundation

Photography by Tina Sargeant

The Lakelander: What is Polk Vision?

Sara Roberts: Polk Vision is a broad, community-led partnership of organizations, businesses, government, and individuals acting collectively to ensure implementation of Polk County’s community vision. In 2003, community leaders came together to define a vision for the entire county. In order to determine how the county should move forward to be successful in the future, town hall meetings, surveys, and focus groups were engaged in creating the vision document. Through these meetings, input was gathered from every corner of the county. Soon after the vision plan was documented, the non-profit organization Polk Vision was created to ensure that the vision is implemented throughout the county.

Polk Vision works through six focus areas to fulfill the vision: education, economic development, infrastructure, government, quality of life, and civic engagement. Each of these areas has volunteers who LEAD (learn, engage, assess, and discuss). LEAD is the process through which our volunteers delve into each focus area. For instance, through our Quality of Life group, the issue of obesity came up about eighteen months ago. The group learned as much as they could about the effects of obesity on health. Then they hosted a forum on obesity in June 2012, which engaged about 100 people in a broad discussion of what we as a county should do to address this health risk. That group has since been branded “Building a Healthier Polk” and continues to meet and move the needle on wellness in our communities.

As the visioning group for the county, we constantly look at where we stand compared to the state and the nation. The vision document was completed in 2004. Since then, we’ve used that document to measure how we are addressing the needs of the community over time. We all agree that economic development is critical to our county’s success. And we all agree that education is vital not only to our children and their pursuits, but to the economy as a whole. If we don’t have a solid education system and economy, then our quality of life suffers. We can see how all of our focus areas affect one another, and all are needed to make our county the best it can be.

TL: What is your background, and how did you become involved with Polk Vision?

untitled143750SR: I am a native Polk Countian and was raised in Davenport. After graduating from Haines City High School and Florida Southern College, I began a career in non-profit management. When I graduated from FSC, there weren’t many jobs for my advertising degree, so a mentor suggested I work for her at Lakeland Regional Medical Center’s (LRMC) foundation. From there I was hired to work for Best Buddies International (BBI), a non-profit focused on enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. There I created programs, raised money, lobbied legislatures, led international conferences, and many other projects. I enjoyed all eleven years with the company and worked in Orlando, Jacksonville, and Atlanta, before moving back to Lakeland.

After my second child was born, I left BBI and began consulting for non-profits, focusing on board development and strategic planning minimally and mostly focused on my family. I learned of Polk Vision when it started as I had just moved back to Lakeland when it was underway. The concept always intrigued me, so when the position became available, I threw my hat in the ring. I was hired in April of last year.

TL: Polk Vision redefined its vision in 2010. What are its areas of focus?

SR: Actually, the vision was refreshed in 2010, meaning the staff and board went back to the original document and honed in on strategies in each of the established focus areas that I mentioned before. The six areas are the same, now with more focused strategies.

TL: How do you measure Polk Vision’s efficacy?

SR: Polk Vision has a benchmark committee in addition to the six focus areas. This committee reviews key community benchmarks with a variety of data that scores Polk County.
The benchmarks include education, economic development, infrastructure, and quality of life. Each of these areas has goals to be obtained by 2020. For instance, in education, one benchmark is to “narrow the gap between Polk County and the state of Florida on an annual basis in order to meet or exceed the state of Florida average by 2020 on the following measurements: kindergarten readiness, tenth-grade reading proficiency, and high school graduation rates.” This information is shared at our annual meeting and on our website.

Our benchmark chair, Peter Usinger from Polk State, is great at data collection and statistical analysis. For instance, we’ve been working on an initiative to combat obesity for the last eighteen months — we are the seventh most obese metropolitan area in the country — so we had already been talking about that at Polk Vision in our Quality of Life group, and then a week before our obesity forum, a USA Today/CNN poll came out that said basically, “You are the fattest.” We knew it was a problem, and this emphasized it. So we take these statistics, determine where the county lands, and can set benchmarks from there.

What Polk Vision does is bring people to the table to dialogue about key issues in the community. Every one of these strategy areas has eight legs to it, so it’s easy to go down rabbit holes. There are very broad-based issues. Members of the community came together in 2003 — United Way, Board of County Commission, several community
leaders — and said we need to have a community-wide mission for the whole county. We have seventeen municipalities, 2,200 square miles, and we need to have a clear vision for where we want to move into the future. So that’s how the process started: They hired a consultant, formed a 501(C)3 called Polk Vision, and met with every inch of the county using town hall meetings, focus groups, and surveys to gather an extreme amount of data to find out what issues were most important to those who lived in the county. That’s how they crafted the original vision document, and if you read it you can see that just the education component alone included over fifty strategies for improvement. And that takes on a lot of different lives — early childhood learning, having kids kindergarten-ready, reading proficiency levels, high school graduation rates, making sure all those goals are above the state average. It takes a lot of different people being involved to make that happen and it also takes recognition of what is already in place.

That’s where Polk Vision comes into play: finding out from the community what’s happening now, assessing why and how the needs aren’t being met, and bringing people together who are subject-matter experts or maybe just interested volunteers who are passionate about the county and passionate about us being successful.
The revised vision document includes the same concept areas as the original but broadens the scope and puts vision components in priority order. For instance, the first priority is education. We all want our children to be educated, have great schools and teachers — how we get there we may differ on a little bit — but if you look at the first strategy, it includes creating a culture that promotes the care and education of children 0 to 6 years old.

TL: How about some successes?

SR: One of our Quality of Life benchmarks is to reduce the percentage of births to unwed mothers under the age of 18, to below the state average by 2020. That number has been falling every year. Tying the decrease directly to Polk Vision may be difficult, but we’ve facilitated a collective awareness of the issue and, through better education throughout the county, the goal is being reached. It’s a partnership. We have a lot of discussions that generate byproducts that we may never know about — we don’t build houses or widgets — but what we can do is put the right people in the room and have a discussion, and build a vision regarding poverty or education or economic development.

One direct success is through our government task force. We recognized that dialogue is key in making anything successful, so for the last three years we’ve facilitated a mayors’ roundtable with the mayors of the seventeen municipalities in the county. The third-annual roundtable happened just last month. It was a three-hour discussion facilitated by David Steele of Polk State [for an interview with David Steele, see the March-April 2013 issue of The Lakelander]. Before the discussion, David talked to all of the mayors about strengths and weaknesses of their cities, best practices, and so on to facilitate the roundtable effectively.

Some of the products of these roundtables have been inter-local agreements between cities, shared best practices, and new projects. Lakeland has a multimillion-dollar budget, and then you have a place like Lake Hamilton with maybe a $4 million budget at the most, so it’s important that the authenticity of each municipality is preserved. But we’ve found that some helpful projects or practices in one city can be scaled up or scaled down to be appropriate for another city.

TL: What are your largest challenges?

SR: The biggest challenge is poverty. It’s a hard discussion to have, but it affects every task force area that we have. There are a lot of people doing great things around the county that help the impoverished population — some connected to Polk Vision and some not — for instance, filling backpacks with food for children who would otherwise be malnourished at home.
But we have to talk about best practices for lowering poverty rates — in places we rival Appalachia — and much of the time in Lakeland you don’t see that. But then you have people like Tim Mitchell at Parker Street Ministries who is just amazing and should be cloned — people who get it. Eileen Holden, a past Polk Vision board chair, says courageous conversations are what we need to be having about poverty. In some ways we have addressed the issue, but not completely. We’ll have a LEAD discussion this fall on housing to determine what programs already exist and what still needs to be done.

TL: What is Leadership Polk?

untitled142112SR: Leadership Polk came from our civic engagement task force seven years ago, and it brings together leaders — business, non-profit, religious — from all over the county who are committed to their communities. They can be nominated to Leadership Polk. They fill out an extensive application, tell us what’s most important in the community, what they see as the biggest challenges in the county, what they see as successful, what they want to learn about, and so on. Leadership Polk is a year-long program with monthly meetings to create county-wide relationships, so that someone from Lake Wales can learn about Polk City, or visit Davenport, or see how something is done in another city.

TL: Tell us about your presidency of the Randy Roberts Foundation (RRF).

SR: My husband, Randy Roberts, was the lobbyist for Publix for six years before he passed away very suddenly in 2009. He and I always wanted to help youth; we volunteered a lot. We really thought that knowledge of civics and how the government works was waning in our schools, and we knew there were a lot of great teenagers doing cool stuff. We had both been very engaged young people in church and community, and we had always talked having a non-profit that lifts up the high school and college kids who are doing great things (instead of all the stuff that’s on the news).

When Randy passed away, there was this unbelievable outpouring of support, and to grab onto that support and make it do something, a group of friends and I started the foundation. We didn’t know what exactly it would do at the beginning, but we knew it would have something to do with youth and civics and community service. Randy passed away in February 2009, and by June 2009 we had our first scholarship recipient.

Our scholarships are for students who excel in public service. We like them to have good grades, but that’s not a requirement — Randy and I were both C students — so we’re not picky about high GPAs. Our board decided that in order to honor Randy, who always wanted to know more about the person he was in front of, that our scholarships would be long-term transactionary. We give $1,000 for freshman year, $2,000 for sophomore year, $3,000 for junior year, and $4,000 for senior year. So throughout the college experience, as long as the student is engaged in the college community and/or the community at home, and doing something to give back and keeping up decent grades, we continue to support him/her. The student can use the money for books or rent or whatever — it goes to the student, not the institution. Then we cultivate a relationship with that student, too. We like to help mentor or find internships or just be a resource for them over a lifetime. It’s not just about them attaining a degree; our mission is to cultivate Florida’s future leaders. We want them to stay or come back to Florida, and ideally for the Polk County students to come back to Polk County.

We also run a program called Congressional Classroom. We are in our third year working with Congressman Dennis Ross, focusing on Polk County with a strong presence in Lakeland, selecting students to take to Washington, D.C. for five days on an experiential learning trip. The students do everything from going to the FBI Academy to sitting in committee hearings to meeting senators. We try to broaden their horizons. Last year, of the fourteen students we took, four had never been on an airplane, probably six of them had never been out of the state. It’s an interesting and fun program — it’s my sweet spot because I love youth, I love high school and college kids. It’s been a very healing thing for my family to do this in Randy’s memory.

TL: How can readers get involved with Polk Vision and RRF?

SR: I would encourage anyone interested to go to both websites: www.polkvision.com and www.randyrobertsfoundation.org. Regarding Polk Vision, we always have open meetings which are posted on our website; those interested can also attend a forum or a LEAD meeting. Just listening and offering to be involved, applying for Leadership Polk.
Regarding Randy’s foundation, encouraging students to apply for scholarships is a great start (scholarships are always due February 15), learning about Congressional Classroom in schools, directing people to our website. Really, word of mouth for Randy’s foundation is great. Both are non-profit charities that will take any and all donations! But if you want skin in the game, there are a lot of ways to do that.

TL: Any other final thoughts?

SR: Stay tuned for some changes in our look, and please, get involved if you can!