November, 2018

Family Traditions and Buckets of Candy

Posted in Community, Donations, Events on November 28th, 2018 with No Comments

It’s No Small Feat

Gibbet Hill Grill co-owner, Kate Webber, is at it again this holiday season with her magnificent gingerbread creations. This season, in addition to the restaurant’s annual fireplace mantle display, she has created an additional gingerbread house… actually it’s a (stunning) castle, and on December 12 it is to be raffled off and awarded to one lucky winner. Family Services of the Merrimack Valley is extremely honored as this year the Gibbet Hill Grill team will be sharing the raffle’s proceeds with our organization. Tickets are on sale now through December 12.  With the gingerbread castle drawing taking place well before the Christmas holiday, the lucky winner will enjoy plenty of time to adore (and indulge).  Raffle tickets may be purchased in person at Gibbet Hill Grill, located at 61 Lowell Road in Groton, MA , or by visiting the restaurant’s website.  We recently caught up with Kate during Gibbet Hill’s busy holiday season…

We hear that these gingerbread creations are a (family) tradition?  Would you care to share any backstory on that?
I started making gingerbread houses with my aunt when I was two years old (I was admittedly just sitting on the kitchen counter).  It was something I continued doing with her through my childhood.  Hers were always elaborate, and so I learned to make involved and crazy buildings from the beginning.  Eventually I started making them on my own either alone or with my mother.  They got more and more elaborate as the years went on, but were only for my family.  When we opened our first restaurant in 2004, I realized I needed to step up my game because a lot of people were going to see them!

Incidentally, my aunt still makes gingerbread houses every year and raffles them off for charity.  Some of her most impressive endeavors have been the US Supreme Court Building and a model of the White House were it set up to be environmentally friendly.

What called to the restaurant to steer your generosity, this holiday season, towards the work we do here at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley?
One of the core values of the Webber Restaurant Group is Community, and therefore we like to support non-profits directly around us.  Family Services of the Merrimack Valley is doing such important work assisting the people of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover who were displaced and affected by the devastating gas fires in September.  Although it happened over two months ago, so many people are still being deeply affected by that tragedy, and any help is incredibly necessary.  At the same time that they are working on this recovery, Family Services of the Merrimack Valley continues to provide family and parenting support, youth programs, mentoring, counseling, and child services to that community.  It’s no small feat.

Any special tips you can offer to the amateur gingerbread house architect?  Are there particular candies which are for your team a must?
First and foremost, it’s important to have fun.  For a regular-sized gingerbread house, use canned icing from the grocery store to hold your walls together.  Use a lot of it, and everything will stick together just fine!  Be patient, and wait for the walls to dry before you put all the candy on.  And use candy canes for decorations!  It makes everything more festive.

Any numbers you can share in terms of how many pounds of candy/sugar went in to this amazing castle you have built?
I know that overall this entire season we used 30 pounds of sugar and 6 dozen eggs for the two houses we made, the one for the raffle and the one that sits on the mantle at Gibbet Hill.  As for how many pounds of candy… that number is immeasurable.  Buckets.  I can say that putting the Necco wafers on this one castle took approximately 8 man hours, several of those put in by my 92-year-old grandmother. 

The Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund is accepting donations through December 31, 2018. If you would like to to support the thousands of people affected by this crisis, or learn more about local relief efforts, please visit the Essex County Community Foundation’s Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund



Proud to be a SUCCESS MENTOR!

Posted in Mentoring on November 28th, 2018 with No Comments

So much of being a mentor is just being there for somebody.

Last month, Family Services of the Merrimack Valley kicked off year two of our Success Mentors program at Lawrence High School.  In the words of our Chief Executive Officer Liz Sweeney… “What can be said about people who volunteer, other than THANK YOU.”  One of the many volunteers we would like to thank is 9th grade Biology teacher Maria (Maya) Jarostchuk (pictured here with her mentee sophmore Surenisha Velasquez).  Maya is back for her second year serving as Surenisha’s mentor.  The mutual respect the two share is remarkable and so inspiring!  Maya recently took the time out of her busy schedule to share her personal experience as a Success Mentor in the form of the following essay.  Thank you Maya!  To learn more about Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s mentoring programs, please visit…

All first year teachers would agree that none of us had any idea what we were doing. We spent the first year in a never-ending mess of lesson plans, behavior systems, grading, parent communication. At the end of most days, we would find ourselves home past dinner time, laying on the floor in the fetal position and eating large amounts of ice cream in order to cope with the stresses of first year teaching. We would fall asleep at night, eyes burning from the hours spent on the computer, with our students’ faces popping into our heads. We would wake up to a 5 am alarm, wishing we had a “normal” job where we got to sit at a desk and interact with zero high schoolers all day.

 I am currently in my second year of teaching 9th grade Biology at Lawrence High School, and every day is different. Some days are sweet, others are sour. On these sour days, I leave work with a bitter feeling in my heart, feeling overworked, underappreciated and completely exhausted. During my first year of teaching, I think I left sour most days… I felt like I was drowning in a sea of grading, lesson planning and meetings, all while trying to stand up in the front of 25 9th graders several times a day and be the authoritative figure who would teach these kids Biology. It felt hopeless.

 Looking back to the previous year, it seems crazy that I would sign up to be a Success Mentor as a first year teacher- I had several mentors myself who were helping me be a better teacher, how was I qualified to mentor a student who truly needed my support? I was not meeting the needs of the 100 + students I taught in the classroom, how could I take on the responsibility of keeping yet another a student on track?

What I learned within the first day of becoming a mentor was that being a mentor is completely different from being a teacher. Students come to Lawrence High School guaranteed to have a teacher for every content for every grade, but they are not guaranteed to have a mentor. Our kids need mentors. They absolutely need them. Mentors are more than just a “nice” or “helpful” teacher. A mentor truly invests not just in the student, but also in the person. We often forget that we are teaching people- these people may be young, they may not be perfect, they may not always do their best work or come to class, but they are people nonetheless. Being a mentor has taught me that our students are people who need to be treated as such. School alone is not going to guarantee success for everyone- some people who come (or don’t) to my Biology class need a little extra support and love, and that is where the line from teacher to mentor must be crossed.

I was paired with Surenisha Velasquez. The first day we met, Surenisha sat me down and explained who she was, what was important to her, and what she needed from me. This seemingly quiet young lady had so much to say, so much to worry about, and so much to ask… her grades and attendance were not due to laziness or an unwillingness to work hard, but rather a lot of external challenges that she was facing. Together, we talked about and worked through some of the struggles that she was having- with schoolwork, attendance and friends. It was amazing how quickly Surenisha went from being my assigned mentee to just another part of my life, a part that was different from the stresses of being a teacher. Taking 30 minutes to eat Wendy’s for lunch was not overwhelming, even when I had work to do. Walking Surenisha across campus to her classroom was no problem at all, even if I was tired or in the middle of something. All of a sudden, I had become a mentor, and what I realize now, is that so much of being a mentor is simply being there for another person.

I can take little credit in the change in Surenisha’s grades, attendance and overall attitude towards school. She did the work. She stayed after school and during lunch to redo or complete missing work. She made sure to come to school every day, even on days where she could have skipped. She made sure to walk away from friends, teachers, or students who were frustrating her. All I did was make sure that I was there for her, and by being there, all I did was give her the space within the school where she felt comfortable and cared for. Surenisha worked extremely hard and was able to get her grades up and pass the 9th grade. She is now a happy 10th grader who is so busy and involved that she only has time to come check in with me once in a while, but it is always with a smile and a million things that are going great.

As a mentor, I thought that I would be teaching my mentee. However, I learned so much from mentoring Surenisha.  Life is prickly sometimes, and it can get extremely prickly for a high schooler who is trying to balance school, work, friends, family and everything that comes with being in high school. As teachers, we see the best and the worst sides of students we teach. Some days we see smiles and effort and 10/10 on classwork, other days we see frowns, tardies and 0/10s. What we have to remember is that we are teaching students, but working with real live people. Sometimes we forget that people are allowed to have bad days, weeks, months or even years. We forget that we should treat all people with kindness and respect. We forget that sometimes the people who seem like they don’t want or need love, actually need it the most. We forget all of this, when we as first, second or even tenth year teachers need the same things. I listened to Surenisha, she listened to me. I complained to Surenisha, she complained to me. I gave Surenisha advice, she gave it right back to me. Being a mentor means to have an equal relationship with another person, to help each other learn from one another and support one another through any challenges.

I still have sour days, I still find myself in the fetal position, and I still eat a lot of ice cream in year 2 of teaching. However, becoming a Success Mentor has done nothing but add sweetness to my experience working at Lawrence High School. Being a teacher is important, but being a mentor is equally if not more important. Mentoring Surenisha has helped ground me in why anyone who works with our youth does the work that we do – because we want to be the adults that help these young people grow into the people that will then help the future young people. We want a world where giving someone support, checking in, asking if they are okay is a regular occurrence. I am proud to be a Success Mentor and feel so fortunate to have gotten to build a relationship with such an incredible young lady.


The Very Best Gift!

Posted in Mentoring on November 27th, 2018 with No Comments

Local Big Friend Shares Her Time Well Spent

Sandy Currie is grateful… grateful for many things in life, and among her “blessings” has been her experience sharing time one on one with local children as a Big Friend.  About eleven years ago Sandy signed up to become a volunteer mentor in Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Big Friends Little Friends program, and for her it’s made all the difference.  At the time she had some extra hours on her hands and decided to offer them to a young child in need.  That one Little Friend, Toni-Ann (9 years old at the time of their match, and now 20), in time led to a second mentee, 11 year old Elaine.  “To be honest, the program gives me more than I give to it,” says Sandy who recently shared an inside glimpse of her personal experience as a volunteer Big Friend.  “Mentoring is time well spent,” reflects Currie.  “You learn more from the child than you can imagine.  Time spent with a little friend is precious and it can be a pleasure.  Spending two hours with a Little Friend goes so fast, and soon you will be wanting to spend more.”  She sums up her two hour commitment with the saying, “time flies when you are having fun”, and she advocates documenting the experience in photographs… “Take pictures every time you meet.  As you look back at them you’ll see it is, for sure, time well spent.”

Despite her professional commitments and service mentoring two young ladies, Currie still manages to find some time for herself.  And in those hours?  She enjoys sewing (quilting), crocheting and watching a good movie – all activities she shares with her Little Friend(s).  A great big THANK YOU to Sandy for her service and to all of our volunteer mentors for the difference you make in the lives of local children!  

Do you recall how you originally learned about Family Services and our Big Friends Little Friends program?
I do not have children of my own, and I wanted to share my time with a young child.  My friend Paula King mentioned to me that there was a program that I may enjoy.  In the past, I was involved in non-profits on the Board of Directors of Essex Art Center, Life Links, and spent time with children in a women’s shelter.  This program had a one to one with a child and had the opportunity to bond with a child.

How does mentoring speak to your personally as a form of giving back?
Mentoring is fun.  Yes, at times it can be challenging, but it is worth it. I receive so much joy in spending time with my two friends.  I started the program when Toni-Ann was about 9 (pictured above with Sandy).  She is now taking classes at Northern Essex Community College, and I see her when she has time.  I have been with Elaine now for one year and hope to see her attend college also.  It is very the best gift, spending time with children and see them grow, one can receive.  I give of my time, but I receive so much more.  

How long did it take for you and your Little Friend Elaine to fall into a rhythm or comfort level with one another?  What has she taught you over time?
Elaine is a very loving person and it took two sessions to feel comfortable with her.  She speaks her mind and lets you know how she feels.  She is a breath of fresh air.  I enjoy spending time with her.  Elaine has taught me to speak up, to not be afraid to try new things and to just have fun.  

Can you share a favorite moment or outing with either of the girls?  
My favorite moment with Elaine was at the Family Services outing at Canobie Lake Park when she was on the log ride and she smiled with joy.  I sent Family Services a picture of her smile and I have that picture at work as well.  

Why is now the time to be a mentor?
If you have time, it is always time to be a mentor.  There is no time like the present.  Now is a good time for me as I have the time.  I am not as young as I used to be, so I have the time now and want to spend it as a mentor.

In closing, is there anything else you wish to share about your experience as a Big Friend?
Just a big THANK YOU, as I am enjoying my time and experience in the Big Friends Little Friends program.

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.  To learn more about the many wonderful children who hope to be paired with an adult mentor, please contact our Big Friends Little Friends program at 978-327-6600.

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.



That ONE Voice

Posted in Community on November 20th, 2018 with No Comments

CASA Welcomes Eight New Advocates

 “I’m at a point in life where my children are older, and I have the time,” shares Heather Howe of North Andover upon being sworn in, along with seven other volunteers, as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) through our Essex County CASA Program.  “I love children, and I want to be that ONE voice which helps a kid establish a foundation,” adds Ms. Howe (pictured far left).  And so here she is, about to begin her service as CASA Advocate for a second time…  

Nearly 700,000 children experience abuse or neglect each year. Instead of enjoying the natural rites of childhood and making happy family memories, they’re attending court hearings, adjusting to new foster homes and transitioning to new schools. Some 77,000 trained volunteers who have taken the CASA oath to, “faithfully advocate for the best interest for the  children with whom they are assigned.” serve these children making certain that someone is speaking up for their best interests.  Ms Howe was part of a group of eager new faces sworn in last week by The Honorable Mark Newman, First Justice of the Lawrence Juvenile Court.  “This service is calling to me,” offered another new CASA advocate Suzanne Miller (pictured above center) of Atkinson, NH.  “I look at all that I did for my own kids and feel that EVERY kid should have that.”  Ms. Miller also serves with the organization 100 Women Who Care Boston North.  She had become aware of volunteer opportunities within the CASA organization some time ago, but was persuaded to commit earlier this year when Family Services of the Merrimack Valley CEO Liz Sweeney addressed 100 Women Who Care Boston North.  That encounter was, for her, a tipping point.  “Her words really resonated with me.”

“Put CASA on your resume,” Judge Newman advises CASA advocates after he administers his oath.  “There are no finer volunteers than CASA workers.  It’s a special designation – helping to to shepherd children from the chaos of neglect to a home and an opportunity for a better life.”  He goes on to prepare them for the road ahead and how they will soon be tasked with navigating “competing truths”.  In concert with that note of caution, he reassures each of the volunteers that there will be many resources available to them along the way – resources such as himself and his colleague The Honorable Judge Kerry Ahern and the “wonderful CASA leadership” found among the Family Services of the Merrimack Valley and National CASA staffs.

“In this group, we have a team that is very energetic to learn,” noted CASA Program Coordinator Alex Parkes. “They ask a number of great questions, and have been a pleasure to work with over the course of our training.” Among the new crop of CASA volunteers is Mary Theresa (pictured above right), a Senior Criminology Major at Merrimack College.  In addition to her completing the CASA training and being sworn in as a volunteer advocate, Mary Theresa also works as an intern in the Family Services of the Merrimack Valley central offices.  “Today was a great day.  We sat in on some hearings and learned more about the role we will play as advocates.  Soon we will be put on trials ourselves.”  A big THANK YOU to our new advocates and to our entire CASA Team for the difference you make!

CASA volunteers help change children’s lives everyday.  In the last year 280,316 abused and neglected children had a CASA volunteer speaking up for their best interests.  With your support, more children will have the opportunity to thrive in a safe and loving home.   432,677 children are currently waiting for a volunteer empowered to find them a safe loving home.  Are you ready to change a child’s life and join a national network of volunteers who stand up for the best interest of a child who has experienced abuse or neglect?  To learn more about Court Appointed Special Advocates and the training involved, please visit the CASA program page found here on our website.



Social Connections and Positive Discipline

Posted in Community on November 20th, 2018 with No Comments

My Loving Family Parents Support Program Spells Relief

Meet Triana…  She’s a modern day Mom who, like many, is on the go 24/7.  In addition to her role as the primary caregiver for her three young children, she owns and operates a food service business.  Lucky for her, she finds solace in a weekly parent support group, My Loving Parents, hosted by Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Family & Community Resource Center, in partnership with Catholic Charities.  She considers herself “a regular” among the group and is proud to be a part of its community.  The weekly group sessions offer her a golden opportunity to connect with other local mothers, to hone her parenting skills and, perhaps most importantly, a quiet escape from the treadmill of life.  Soft music, healthy snacks, a chance to listen and be heard, and a shared commitment to being the best parent they can be form the foundation of the ongoing support group.  “I’m so happy when I come here,” beams Triana.  This is MY special time.”  That sentiment seems to be a shared one as on any given week the house is quite full with extra chairs being pulled up to accommodate the overflow.

The parenting content in the group’s current series is based on Positive Discipline, a parenting program designed to teach young people to become responsible, respectful, and resourceful members of their communities. Based on the best-selling Positive Discipline parenting books by Dr. Jane Nelsen, the program teaches important social and life skills in a manner that is deeply respectful and encouraging for both children and adults. Parenting with Positive Discipline means being kind and firm at the same time, which is effective long-term and helps children feel a connection — a sense of belonging and significance. 


  1. Is Kind and Firm at the same time. (Respectful and encouraging) 
  2. Helps children feel a sense of Belonging and Significance. (Connection) 
  3. Is Effective Long-Term. (Punishment works short term, but has negative long-term results.) 
  4. Teaches valuable Social and Life Skillsfor good character. (Respect, concern for others, problem-solving, accountability, contribution, cooperation) 
  5. Invites children to discover how Capablethey are and to use their personal power in constructive ways. 

“I love coming here, shares Triana (pictured above).  “I learn a lot of things here – especially how to raise my children with happiness and love and peace.”  Through visual presentations and conversation, together, attendees tease out each week’s lesson.  “Many of the participants who join us don’t have any family in the area,” points out Program Coordinator Noelia Fernandez.  “Here they can find support from other moms and shares experiences.  The beauty of the group is making those connections.”  Felicita Roman is a Volunteer Facilitator for the group.  She brings to the role a health dose of compassion after several years employed in the field of domestic violence.  “It is my passion helping out with this support group and making sure that women are learning to parent well,” she offers.  She also emphasizes the importance of self-care and how she admires the curriculum’s focus on that aspect of family wellness.  “It is difficult to take care of your kids if you are not taking care of yourself.  My Loving Parents helps to increase awareness around this, as it can play a huge impact on the overall family’s well being.”

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley partners with the Department of Children and Families to provide the Family & Community Resource Center to help families raise children in healthy, stable homes. All services are free and open to all families in Essex County.  To learn more about upcoming programming or other offering at our Family & Community Resource Center, please visit their program page, or call 978-975-8800.

Services Include:

  • Assessment and family support planning.
  • Peer-to-peer support groups for youth, grandparents raising grandchildren, and “Parents Helping Parents”.
  • Life skills workshops for youth, parents and families, such as bullying prevention, financial literacy and behavior management.
  • Cultural, social, recreational, and community service activities, including holiday gatherings, bingo nights, and National Night Out.
  • Information and referral services.
  • English as a Second Language classes.