Nearly 30 people turned out Tuesday night to participate in focus groups the United Way is forming based on the findings of a recent community assessment.

The survey, conducted by the United Way of Greater St. Louis for the Franklin County Area United Way, was completed this past fall. The five needs identified, in order, are: Mental Health and Substance Abuse; Housing; Employment; Transportation; and Safety.

Paula Obermark, United Way executive director, said she was thrilled with Tuesday night’s turnout.

“We had a wide range of people, really a great cross-section of individuals,” she said. “Some of the people just have a personal interest in one of the issues, and others are who I call key players because they are currently working or have worked in one of these areas.”

Obermark said there were representatives from Mercy Hospital, the Four Rivers Area YMCA, Missouri Extension Center, developmental services, as well as retired educators and realtors among others.

“It’s exciting to see that interest and we look forward to what their research will find and the recommendations that will come out of each of the focus groups,” she added.

Obermark said a large number of people were interested in serving on the mental health focus group, which didn’t surprise her because the survey identified it as the No. 1 need.

“Some had specific interests and others are willing to serve on any group, so I think we have enough people for each focus group. Plus I did receive calls from about 12 people who couldn’t attend Tuesday night and want to participate,” she said.

The groups will begin meeting next month. Each is charged with studying and researching the issue over the next year and then coming up with recommendations on how to best meet those needs.

Obermark said the recommendations will serve as a guide for the United Way to help it determine which services are needed and to help prioritize funding for the next 10 years.

In the beginning, United Way staff will facilitate the meetings, and board members also will be assigned a group.

“Eventually, we hope each group will elect a chair who can take over running the meetings,” Obermark said.

Some groups may complete their work in six months or so, she said, while others may require a full year.

“Already some have some really great ideas and plans,” she noted.

Obermark said the groups have an opportunity to truly make an impact on the community at large.

“We’re fortunate to be in this position,” she said. “I’m expecting some permanent, concrete changes to occur as a result of their findings and recommendations.”

Obermark said it’s important for the United Way to be aware of community needs which can change over time, and then respond accordingly.

Anyone interested in serving on one of the focus groups is asked to call the United Way office, 636-239-1018.