Thursday, December 9, 2010

Operation Family Fresh Start - A Strategy for Strengthening Families, Improving Education and Building Community

This is not necessarily meant to be a year end report, but reflection on CitySquare's work this past year is getting more and more interesting.

The success of our work can be counted on a number of levels. Obviously there are the big dramatic successes, like the completion of CityWalk. There are those programs which are quantifiably 'successful', at least in clear and unambiguous statistical terms - the number of food distributed at our food pantry, or patients seen at the clinic, or participants in our job training or permanent supportive housing programs.

But, then there are other successes that often are not so clear - even within the CitySquare family!

Our work in the Roseland Homes public housnig community, is one of those successes. The story of our work there is a story of what happens when we engage one another as neighbors, programmatically for sure, but in ways that respect the capacity of our neighbors and seeks to work with them as partners and collaborators.

Rosaland Homes is the oldest public housing development west of the Mississippi River. It's comprised of more than 1100 residents. The average income at Roseland is under $7500 per year. CitySquare works in an area of Roseland that has a population of more than 350 people.

In 2008 we began to employ a strategy to enhance the academic performance of elementary school children (nearly all of whom attend J.W. Ray Elementary School), by strengthening the household infrastructure, as well as education support. Families dealing with unemployment or underemployment would receive attention from our WorkPaths program; those with legal problems would have those problems addressed by CitySquare L.A.W. (Legal Action Works); health issues would be handled by Dr. Rhonda Walton, our pediatrician who works in our Community Health Services clinic, and so on. The question we had was: if we address these issues, with the intention of providing children with a more stable home, how far could we move the needle on children's academic performance? We call the strategy Operation Family Fresh Start.

Frankly, the results has always been a mixed  bag. Yes we have seen improvement in academic performance. In our more traditional after school program, operated in the Roseland Community Center, 72% of 40 kids surveyed showed an increase in at least one core subject area (math, reading, science, language arts). In our enrichment, experiential learning after school program (our After School Academy), we surveyed 19 of 30 participants - 95% showed improvement in at least one of these subjects. Sixty percent of those who attended after school at the Community Center had an average grade of 80 or above; while it was 90% at our ASA. But these are figures very early in our strategy (the first year) and it was a small sampling. We're still trying to work out the statistical impact on the academic performance, which will change due to a new (read: very positive), working relationship with the school and its new principal.

As staff worked through the challenges of working together as collaborating programs, one thing appears to have emerged beyond  doubt: an impact is being made in the lives of residents that is building communities in ways that we hadn't quite anticipated.

At an end of the year meeting with program directors working with the OFFS strategy, stories were told about new capacity and new engagement among the parents and in the community:

Weekends at the community center are becoming bustling affairs, with parents volunteering during basketball tournaments to man the concession stand to raise money for our programs. More and more residents taking part in activities offered there and producing a greater feeling of community.

An Operation Family Fresh Start household, a husband and wife, are employing new parenting skills learned in the parent academy, and who, because of training offered in financial planning, are saving money to own their own home. The mother in the household, once suspicious and untrusting, is now the Vice-President of the Roseland Residents' Council. She told the story of how the council received complaints of structural problems in the some of the homes in the community. She took leadership to address the Dallas Housing Authority Board of Managers, advocating on behalf of her neighbors and the problems they were having in their homes. I wish you could have seen the satisfaction on her face when she reported to the program directors how responsive DHA was to her appearance and how quickly the repairs were made.

Still another program director, spoke of increased parent involvement in other After School Academy activities, more than 40 parents. And increasingly, more fathers volunteering and participating.

Dr. Walton has taken a dynamic lead in helping to address the issues of the mothers participating in OFFS, starting a monthly luncheon in which they talk about their issues, share solutions and provide support. This isn't an 'eat your spinich' luncheon, in which they are told how to be better. They share their stories and their stresses and build camaraderie. But recently, they took an innovative step and held the luncheon at J.W. Ray. There they were joined by teachers and some of the staff! Teachers were able to see parents in a new light and parents were able to begin building deeper relationships with their children's teachers.

Dr. Walton has also been invaluable in helping parents get the necessary treatment for students who have had behavioral problems that need to be addressed with medication; or who need medical treatment that all too often goes neglected in poor communities. We heard the story of one child who had been in special education nearly the entire time he was in school. Dr. Rhonda's work with the child has revealed a child who didn't need to be in special education, but one who thrives academically!

The one story however that moved me the most, was how part of the programming over the past two summers (when OFFS is more in planning mode), children in the ASA were volunteering with Meals on Wheels to serve seniors and other shut-ins, not in Roseland, but in South Dallas! They were learning community service to others who were not in their neighborhood and who, in some cases were in more dire straits than the households from which they come.

I'm not sure how to quantify all of this. In fact, I'm not sure we should. It's an awfully difficult story to tell, because its one that isn't finished. It doesn't guarantee the kind of results that make us feel as if the good we are doing has the tangible results of 'getting people out of poverty' (something I'm all for!). But its something that I think is so much different: people without much money - people we call poor - being provided the venues necessary to experience community. Community: the space where we encounter one another, recreate with one another, laugh and play and celebrate with one another. Community is the space in which we support one another as we grapple with loneliness and the pain of our failures, and strive to achieve better for ourselves and for our children; it's the context in which we grow to understand the spiritual as church, but learn that its more than church - its deeply rooted need each of us have to know that we are known and that we are cared for and about.

I heard that when Lyndon Johnson left the White House, he told someone that he was going 'back to Texas, where people know when you're sick and care when you die'.

That, in a nutshell, is community.

In a way, its not what we envisioned when we started Operation Family Fresh Start. But I have confidence the academic success will come. I have confidence that participating families will indeed be stronger. I have confidence that our staff will continue to create innovative ways to engage with those families and provide opportunities for them to engage one another.

I don't know if what we are doing in Roseland is classic non-profit programming. I'm constantly being told that it is not 'fundable'; that it's too small and not dramatic enough to raise money for - not profitable. And perhaps that's an accurate and fair critique. But I know this: the intentional creation of an atmosphere in which community can be experienced is something none of us can do without these days. For most of us, it doesn't happen organically very often anymore. I'm proud of the CitySquare staff, supporters and volunteers who are committed to it. And for as long as we can, we're going to keep it up. But I believe it's worth doing...

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