October, 2018

Child Support

Posted in Fatherhood on October 31st, 2018 with No Comments

Fathers & Family Network Kicks Off 2018 – 2019 Series

As an organization deeply rooted in the community, input from those populations we serve often steers the programming we offer here at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley.  Last summer, at the year-end meeting of our Fathers and Family Network, a number of Dads in attendance shared tales of their difficulties in navigating the states’s court system and expressed frustration at how these challenges often impeded visitation with their children.  Family Services Family Programs Director Betsy Green quickly picked up on their common refrain and developed a line-up of relief for the network’s 2018 – 2019 season of programming.  First up in the series were two veterans of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) – Child Support Criminal Justice Specialists Janet Champa and John Fowler who together brought their (combined) 60 years of experience to the October kick-off meeting.

“Good to know,” was a comment made throughout the morning as the DOR representatives offered their insights.  “Child support… it’s a different story for guys,” summed up Fowler (pictured above with his colleague Janet Champa).  To the providers and case workers in attendance he emphasized the importance of paternity when it comes to visitation rights.  “Paternity gives you the right to custody.  Custody gives you the right to parenting time.  Without paternity, none of this happens for fathers.”  Another take-away for those on hand was the importance of being present for any and all child support hearings.  Fowler shared with the group a number of first-hand real-life tales in illustration of his position on this front.  “If you don’t show up, you leave your fate in someone else’s hands.  Fathers have got to be there to speak for themselves!”  

The message of both Champa and Fowler’s presentation to the Fathers and family Network was essentially, “we’re here to help”.  Rather than dodge the Department, Dads especially can benefit from the DOR’s assistance.  “A lot of the trouble we see out there today (such as the opiod crisis and gang involvement) is a result of the father being missing from the picture.  We want to help Dads get back into the lives of their children.”  If the swell of audience questions was any indication, their message proved timely.  “This was great information this morning,” offered Flor, a Case Worker with the Department of Children and Families.  “I work with men, and there is so much we do not know about navigating the courts.  These fathers come to us and tell us their stories about how afraid they are to reach out to the DOR.  I want to show them how they can work with people like us to help them.  Today, I learned so much that I can now share with them.”

Family Services parenting programs recognize that caring for family members is a challenge.  In our Parenting Programs department, trained and experienced professionals help parents, children and relatives gain the knowledge and skills they need to care for one another, and create a stronger, healthier family unit through a variety of services.  All service providers are welcome to please join us for our next Fathers and Family Network meeting on November 29.  To earn more about Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Parenting programs, please visit… 





Kindness to the Rescue?

Posted in In the News on October 24th, 2018 with No Comments

Let’s Talk About Bullying

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Verbal, social and physical in nature, it’s behavior that is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.  For both kids who are bullied and who bully the impact is lasting.  When adults respond quickly and consistently to bullying behavior they send the message that it is not acceptable. Research shows this can stop bullying behavior over time. Parents, school staff, and other adults in the community can help kids prevent bullying by talking about it, building a safe school environment, and creating a community-wide bullying prevention strategy.  Throughout October, Family Services of the Merrimack Valley is joining with our friends at Stop Bullying during National Bullying Prevention Month in an effort to spread awareness around bullying and its impact particularly among school age children.

Bullying can happen in any zip code — in cities, suburbs, or rural towns.  Justin Timberlake, Michael Phelps, Taylor  Swift, Chris Rock and Kate Middleton are just a few of the public figures who have shared their personal experiences of being bullied.  It’s a complex behavior to foretell as there is no ONE factor that puts a child at risk of being bullied or bullying others.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) youth, youth with disabilities, and socially isolated youth often find themselves at an increased risk of being bullied. “Bullying has been and continues to be a pressing issue for youth of all ages,” shares Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Interim Clinic Director Krystal Dunn.  

Generally, children who are bullied have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool”
  • Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
  • Are depressed, anxious, or have low self esteem
  • Are less popular than others and have few friends
  • Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention

What does a bully look like, and what prompts his or her actions?  There are two types of kids who are more likely to bully others.  Some are well-connected to their peers, have social power, are overly concerned about their popularity, and like to dominate or be in charge, while others are more isolated from their peers and may be depressed or anxious, have low self esteem, be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers, or not identify with the emotions or feelings of others.  Those who bully others are not necessarily  stronger (or bigger) than those they bully. The power imbalance can come from a number of sources—popularity, strength, cognitive ability—and children who bully may have more than one of these characteristics.  

Children who have the following factors are also more likely to bully others;

  • Are aggressive or easily frustrated
  • Have less parental involvement or having issues at home
  • Think badly of others
  • Have difficulty following rules
  • View violence in a positive way
  • Have friends who bully others

Between cyber bullying and bullying at school, statistics show that one in four kids in the United States are bullied on a regular basis.   “The rising use of social media has created a new platform for bullying, increasing both the frequency and severity of it,” adds Dunn.  “Bullying via social media allows for a broader audience, and subjects the affected youth to more intense feelings of humiliation – all of which contribute to low self-esteem, depression, social isolation, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness.”  

Could kindness be the antidote to bullying?  It’s a tool available to us in every moment and one that when coupled with empathy can be a game changer.  “Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and teachers need to embed this skill into their curriculum,” says Susan Patterson, who leads a cyberbullying course at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. “We need to do identity work with children early on so that kids know who they are and who everybody else is and what their place is in the world.”  Patterson believes that empathy and kindness support children in this all-important area of identity of self and other.


Thanks to our friends at Stop Bullying for sharing information for this article.  If you or someone you know is being bullied, please visit their What Kids Can Do page on the Stop Bullying website.


A Genuine Feeling of Caring Here

Posted in Community, Suicide Prevention and Postvention on October 23rd, 2018 with No Comments

Hundreds Join in Samaritans Second Annual Walk for Hope

“Peg Serley was a driving force in community outreach. She began her work some 40 years ago when NOBODY was talking about suicide. In fact, people shunned it. Peg was out front with all of this,” reflected Walk for Hope Co-Chair Bob Autieri as he addressed the crowds gathered at the Walk for Hope’s opening ceremony.  “In our lifetime, if we’re fortunate, we get to meet outstanding people that we just never forget. In my life I call them beacons of light. Peg Serley is, for me, one of those beacons of light.”  Among those on hand Saturday morning to receive Autieri’s tribute was Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley Founder Ms. Serley herself.  Her presence at the second annual Walk for Hope was among the event’s many highlights.

One of the intentions behind the Walk for Hope, created by Samaritans Director Debbie Helms, was to offer the community a space for healing and celebrating lives lost, but also to create a community of comfort and conversation in and around suicide.  As one walker pointed out along the walk’s course, “there’s just a genuine feeling of caring here.”  From extended families and bands of teams to puppies and pals, all were spirited up to show their support for suicide prevention and awareness.  “You know when you get a hug from someone who lost a loved one here, it’s a sincere hug – they know,” shared one participant who had recently lost her niece to suicide.  “They’ve been there.  That’s a person who has walked in your shoes.”

“I learned about the Samaritans when I myself needed help.  And, these people came at the right moment for me,” shared Ms. Serley as she walked back in time.  “The ability to share that over the years has been a blessing to me, and hopefully to many other people.”  Family Services of the Merrimack Valley is forever grateful for Peg Serley’s longtime service and unwavering commitment to shedding light on suicide.  The many blessings she has offered ripple far and wide.  We would also like to thank our Samaritans staff, the Walk for Hope Event Committee, our sponsors, friends in the media, the students at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School (a few of whom are pictured above) and the countless volunteers who helped to contribute to a wonderful morning of healing and community.  You are all beacons of light!

Family Services’ Samaritans provides a free and confidential crisis help line to those who are lonely, despairing, suicidal or need someone to listen. This service is provided by trained volunteers who provide unconditional and non-judgmental “TLC” – talking, listening and caring. This service is available (daily) from 8 AM to 11 PM by calling our Crisis Help Line at 866-912-HOPE (4673), or 978-327-6607.  

Additional Resources:

877-870-4673 – Samaritans Statewide Crisis Help Line

1-800-273-8255 – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-508-532-2255 – Call2Talk

To contact a Samaritans staff member, please call 978-327-6671.

Cake Boss… Meet Hannah Finn of the One Wish Project

Posted in Community, Donations, In the News on October 10th, 2018 with No Comments

I want these children to feel the same special.

Throughout her childhood Hannah Finn’s Mom always made certain that she and her brothers felt special on their birthdays. That family tradition made a big imprint on Hannah – an imprint that she channels through her service as the founder of the Andover-based One Wish Project.   The project, a labor of love, was lauched in 2017 in conjunction with Lazarus House.  It’s original mission was to provide a special birthday experience to children and young teen residents by presenting the Birthday Girl or Birthday Boy with a custom homemade cake (baked by Hannah), party decorations and presents.  Over time the One Wish Project’s scope has grow,n and they now partner with two additional shelters.  “I want these children to feel the same special way that I do on their birthdays – despite their current circumstances,” shares Hannah. 

Earlier this year, Hannah was recognized as a “Community Hero” by the American Red Cross.  Family Services of the Merrimack Valley is beyond pleased to welcome Hannah and the One Wish Project as a new fiscal partner.  We recently caught up with Hannah as she makes her way through her Junior year at Andover High School.

Hannah, thanks for the difference you are making here in our community with the One Wish Project. Congratulations on the program’s success.  Can you share a bit about your passion for baking?  Where did you learn your confectionery skills, and at what age did you begin to sketch out this project? 
Ever since I was young, I have always had a love for baking. My baking skills are self taught, but I have worked with a handful of people to guide me in making the cakes. I have also learned a lot of the skills by watching things like Youtube videos as well as baking shows on  television. I began the One Wish Project in April of 2017 when I was fourteen years old.

How has the One Wish Project changed your life?
The One Wish Project has opened my eyes about the extent of the homeless issues even in our own community and has taught me how important it is to try and help other in need. The organization has shown me what it means to be a leader and a role model for younger children who can also learn how to give back in their own ways.

Do you personally meet the kids who receive your cakes?
As of right now, I am partnered with two homeless shelters which are both located in Lawrence. Due to privacy policies, I am unable to meet the children who receive the birthday cake and presents in one of the shelters. I make the delivery when the residents of the shelter are not present when I arrive. Although I am not able to see the children, it makes me happy to know that they will have a birthday celebration that day and I always hope it puts a smile on their face. The other shelter, however, welcomes me to come in and interact with the birthday recipient. I love being able to meet the kids and firsthand see their reactions when they see what I brought for them.

What are some of your specialties?  Do you have any signature cakes?
Every cake I make is unique to what the birthday child wants. They are able to choose on a survey what their favorite cake flavor is, the colors they like and their interests. From there, I am able to customize a cake that they love.

What does giving back mean to you?
In regards to One Wish Project, giving back means making sure a less fortunate child feels the same sense of happiness that I feel on my birthday and giving them a celebration that they may not otherwise have been able to have.

Do you have someone in your life who stands out as a mentor – someone who encourages you to be your best self?
My mother has always encouraged me to be the best I can be and that giving back to others is an important aspect of life. My mom has always supported my efforts in creating the One Wish Project and is there to guide me along the way.

Gymnastics, homework, cakes…  How do you balance all of these competing tasks? 
Organization comes naturally to me and I can always find a way to balance out everything. There are definitely days that can be difficult in terms of balancing One Wish Project with schoolwork and extra-curriculars, but in the end it all works out and everything gets done.  

Lastly…  Do you have a favorite show on the Cooking Channel or a favorite chef?
I LOVE Cupcake Wars! I love watching the bakers compete and it’s so much fun to see their final products. They are all extremely talented! I also love watching the TV network Tastemade!!!

If you would like to support Hannah’s work in the community or learn more about the One Wish Project, please visit www.onewishproject.us.  And, check out this great Andover Townsman feature on Hannah!


Image courtesy of the Andover Townsman.


Date Night…

Posted in Community, Fatherhood on October 3rd, 2018 with No Comments

Dinner and Diplomas as Strengthening Couples Fall Program Concludes

Love was very much in the air at the recent graduation reception for Family Services’ Fortaleciendo Parejas (Strengthening Couples) program.  Muted lighting, dinner, soft music, heartfelt salutes… and diplomas were all integral to the program finale’s mood.  The celebration was well earned by the eight couples in attendance, and their collective sense of accomplishment added much to the evening.  Some eight weeks ago they began their journeys with the intention of recommitting to their spouses and reinforcing their unions.

Meeting that goal requires much from each participant, and if the joy and tears flooding the graduation reception ware any indication, that agency pays off.  “I’ve been with my husband for 11 years.  I really thought it was the end for us,” shares Antonie as her eyes well up.  “Then, we discovered this program.  Coming here gave us the tools to work on it.  I think this program should be offered in EVERY town!”

Such testimonials filled the room over the course of the evening – with one couple (pictured above) beaming as they shared the news of their engagement to be married as a result of the work they accomplished through the program!  In addition to the presentation of diplomas, the graduation reception also included some closing instructional moments, offered by Program Facilitator Carmen Fortuna.  During this segment she shared best practices for emboldening and nurturing partnerships from the Within Our Reach curriculum which drives the Strengthening Couples series.  Within Our Reach builds on couple participants’ existing strengths and adds critical life and relationship skills to create safer, more stable unions that help heighten the quality of life for the individuals in that relationship as well as their children, including: fostering improved communication, managing expectations, and devoting themselves to a mutual commitment and support.  The curriculum was developed with critical relationship strategies that focus on how adults learn best– by engaging in activities that reinforce self-awareness and apply healthy decision-making strategies to their own circumstances.

“With every group of graduates I see the same swell of positive energy from the couples,” shares Family Services’ Family Programs Director Betsy Green.  “They don’t want the program to end.  They want to stay together as a group and continue.  And, most of the new couples who will arrive to the program when we offer it next will do so as result of their referrals.”  Ms. Green is careful to articulate that the program is not a “fix”.  “We intentionally refer to the series as Strengthening Couples, because it’s not just about repairing the union.  Within Our Reach is more a set of tools and practices we share to reinforce relationships wherever the couples happen to be – whether just starting out, or many years in.”

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley recognize that caring for family members is a challenge and recognizes the need for couples to maintain positive relationships that are healthy and nurturing.  In our parenting programs department, trained and experienced professionals help parents, children and relatives gain the knowledge and skills they need to care for one another, and create a stronger, healthier family unit.  The next Fortaleciendo Parejas group begins on October 18.  Please call the Strengthening Couples Program Coordinator at 978-327-6656 for further information.

Programs & Services for Families Include:

  • Putting Children 1st – Court mandated parent education for divorcing parents.
  • Parenting Journey – A 12-week parent education curriculum that helps parents come to terms with their childhood experiences in order to make positive changes going forward.
  • Siempre Papa (24/7 Dad) – A multi-week curriculum especially for Latino men that addresses their unique concerns and needs in their role as fathers.
  • Young Empowered Parents (YEP!) – YEP! works with pregnant and parenting teens to learn how to care for their children while they continue to pursue their education and life goals.
  • Strengthening Couples – A 8-week program designed to help couples form and sustain a healthy relationship.
  • Family & Community Resource Center – Located at One Union Street in Lawrence, MA, the FCRC provides a host of support services for families, including workshops, community events, case management, and parenting classes.


My Name is Noah…

Posted in Mentoring on October 2nd, 2018 with No Comments

There is no greater joy, nor greater reward, than to make a fundamental difference in someone’s life.

Can you spell B A S K E T B A L L?  As in the  game played between two teams of five players in which goals are scored by throwing a ball through a netted hoop fixed above each end of the court?  If so, you just might enjoy the company of nine year old Noah.  The sport happens to be his passion.  His favorite team in the NBA is the Golden State Warriors, and his hero is their Point Guard Stephen Curry – an athlete many people consider the “greatest shooter in NBA history”.  Noah would likely concur with that! 

Noah is one of the over 100 local children awaiting a mentor as part of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Big Friends, Little Friends program.  Although he is quick to share his favorites (i.e. color – ORANGE and food – PIZZA), Noah is somewhat reserved when meeting new faces.  An ideal mentor for him would be a younger male – someone that Noah could look to as an “older brother” figure.  An interest in sports, like basketball, would be a huge plus!  However, exposure to new experiences is also a doorway that a mentor could open for Noah.   Advocate Mary Rose McGeady, recognized for her work with homeless youth, once counseled, “there is no greater joy, nor greater reward than to make a fundamental difference in someone’s life.”   Perhaps such joy awaits YOU by becoming Noah’s Big Friend and making an impact on his life trajectory?  To learn more about Noah and the many other wonderful children who hope to be paired with an adult mentor, please contact our Big Friends Little Friends program at 978-327-6600.

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Big Friends Little Friends is a youth mentoring program that matches caring adult mentors with young people who could benefit from a relationship with a positive adult role model. The goal of the program is to develop the positive potential of young people by providing them with support, guidance and friendship.  Serving fifteen towns in the Merrimack Valley, each year our Big Friends Little Friends program matches approximately 100 children with mentors.

Big Friends are caring and responsible people who:

  • Are from all different backgrounds, races and religions, and like to have fun.
  • Are committed to being a consistent role-model; to their continued mentor training; and to sharing, listening and visiting with their Little Friend.
  • Are able to relate positively and in a meaningful manner to a growing boy or girl.

Little Friends are boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 14 who:

  • Reside in our service area.
  • Have a desire to be in the program and want to have a Big Friend.
  • Have the approval and support of their parents or guardians to participate in the program.
  • Are from all different backgrounds, races and religions.

Our mentoring program service area includes children from: Amesbury, Andover, Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, Lawrence, Merrimac, Methuen, Newbury, Newburyport, North Andover, Rowley, Salisbury, and West Newbury.  Please consider helping us make our long wait list vanish this season by signing up to be a Big Friend today!  Check out one of our great matches… Omar and Boris.


My Son Has a Name

Posted in Community, Suicide Prevention and Postvention on October 1st, 2018 with No Comments

Suicide… It’s a Complicated Grief.

Andrea Casey is a member of the amazing team we have here on staff here at Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley, a program of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley.  A beloved facilitator of the Samaritans ongoing Survivors of Suicide Loss Safe Place meetings, Andrea brings to that role a very unique perspective.  She has walked in the shoes of those who seek refuge in these community gatherings.  In 2008 she lost her beloved some Christopher to suicide.  She wants him to be remembered.  He had a name.  He had dreams, and he also had demons she believes.  In his honor, Andrea channels her grief into action by championing suicide awareness and by comforting other survivors in their heartbreak.  We are grateful for Andrea’s service and caught up with her as she and her colleagues prepare for the Samaritans Second Annual WALK FOR HOPE taking place on October 20.  Information on WALK FOR HOPE volunteer opportunities, participant registration and sponsorship opportunities are available here…

How did you become involved with Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley
I became involved with the Samaritans of Merrimack Valley when I lost my son Christopher Lee Manross ten years ago.   At the time, my Mom’s place of employment had a sign posted on the window for a Safe Place meeting for survivors of suicide loss.  

What would you like others to know about Chris?
Chris was my blond-haired, blue-eyed darling of a son.  He was gentle and kind-hearted.  He once stood up to bullying for a friend who shared the same religion.  Chris was very intelligent (sometimes  I think brilliant), and he received an academic scholarship to study Engineering at Clemson University – one of the most elite programs in the country.  I just want him to be remembered – that my son has a name, and he lived to be 18.  He wasn’t selfish.  He must have had demons that only he knew.

Tell us about the Survivor Support Group.  Why are they so essential?
The Survivor Group is essential because (in that setting) we all have lost someone to suicide.  It’s a complicated grief.  Who they (our loved ones) were and how they died is traumatic in its own worst way.  These gatherings are a place to vent your loss and connect with others who share your grief.

Last year you volunteered in our First Annual WALK FOR HOPE.  How was that experience?  Can you speak about the healing aspects of participating in this?
The First Annual Walk for Hope gave me hope.  We need to raise money for this much needed cause.  We have to denounce the stigma around suicide.  We have to take a stand against suicide’s depiction as a “selfish” act.  With both last year’s event and this year’s WALK FOR HOPE, our goal is to spread the word that suicide is truly a sickness, and that there is hope.  I believe that EDUCATION is the key factor.

How will the event differ this year, and what will people be missing if they do not participate in the Walk in some capacity?
With this year’s WALK FOR HOPE, we are on a mission to reach a broader audience.  The community nature of the Walk presents us with a chance to spread the word about the education we offer through the Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley.  We need these educational programs to reach the hurting… and the general public as they may know of someone suffering.  The Samaritans also offers both the knowledge and the resources for those that might be contemplating suicide.  I believe if people would just educate themselves and others, we will help save lives!

Thank you for all that you do Andrea….  Is there anything else you want to share on the topic of suicide  as we approach the second annual WALK FOR HOPE?
I would just like to say that if we had known that our son Chris was suicidal and we had accessed the resources and trained staff of the Samaritans, maybe, just maybe, my sweet young son would still be with us today.

Family Services’ Samaritans of Merrimack Valley strives to reduce the incidence of suicide in the Merrimack Valley and throughout Massachusetts by providing “befriending” to individuals who are lonely, depressed and contemplating suicide or self-injury. Suicide prevention is one of the primary goals of the Samaritans, although services also include postvention services, trainings and seminars, and support groups.  To learn more about our Second Annual WALK FOR HOPE, please visit…

If you or someone you know is in imminent risk of suicide, call 911 or an ambulance to take them to an emergency room.

Family Services’ Samaritans provides a free and confidential crisis help line to those who are lonely, despairing, suicidal or need someone to listen. This service is provided by trained volunteers who provide unconditional and non-judgmental “TLC” – talking, listening and caring. This service is available (daily) from 8 AM to 11 PM by calling our Crisis Help Line at 866-912-HOPE (4673), or 978-327-6607.

Additional Resources:

877-870-4673 – Samaritans Statewide Crisis Help Line

1-800-273-8255 – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-508-532-2255 – Call2Talk

To contact a Samaritans staff member, please call 978-327-6671.