Following the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill –– communities across the country and in the heartland will start to receive an unprecedented amount of funding to close the digital divide. Even with the $65 billion in funding, important challenges remain –– these funds must be effectively disseminated to maximize the impact in the communities that need it most. That’s why Mary Gay’s role as a Heartland Forward American Connection Corps fellow working for the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois is so crucial.
Mary made the decision to serve as a fellow, in the area where she went to college, following her graduation from Washington University in St. Louis. She was excited for the learning opportunity her fellowship provided, saying, “Even though I came into this position not knowing a lot about broadband, the pandemic made it clear how vital strong internet connection is to thrive in today’s world. The more I learn about it the more motivated I am to make change in this area as a fellow.”
In her role at the Leadership Council, Mary helps implement the Illinois Connected Communities Strategic Plan Key Regional Priorities. Specifically, she is spearheading the development of a broadband grant “war room” from which the Leadership Council can identify funding sources, timelines and criteria for available grants to expand broadband access.
Through this work, Mary created a page on the Leadership Council website called “Broadband Funding Opportunities.” She keeps the website updated with available broadband grants found through research. This first of its kind, one-stop shop for the community provides background on who is providing the funding, eligibility requirements, relevant dates, award details and supporting information about the grant and sponsoring organization. The website also has additional resources, including federal grant-finding tools, information on broadband issues, and links through which individuals can find affordable internet in their community.
This tool aims to address the needs of organizations in Illinois’ Metro East region by providing a centralized location for individuals and organizations to access funding opportunities. While the Leadership Council is locally focused, the list Mary created predominantly outlines federal funding that’s available to states beyond Illinois, making it a valuable tool for organizations across the country.
Mary’s motivation for creating this tool comes from issues she identified in the grant-seeking process. “I think it is important to have a place where people interested in pursuing broadband related projects can go to look for funding easily,” Mary says. “It is a time-consuming process, and having a list in one place where people can see immediately if they are eligible, how much they can get, and what it is for, will save them a lot of time.”
In the short time this new resource has been up and running, stakeholders in the region have utilized it to easily locate and apply for grants to receive funding for broadband projects. Mary plans to continue updating the website throughout the duration of her fellowship with available opportunities. Her work will remain a resource for the region to ensure no available opportunity to connect more people with broadband goes unnoticed, and Heartland Forward is proud to support her work.