December, 2018

Welcome to Family Services!

Posted in Community on December 19th, 2018 with No Comments

There’s quite a lot packed under the roof here at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley (FSMV).  From our Mentoring Programs, our Family Programs, a Mental Health Clinic, Essex County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley, and on to our Administrative Offices… there’s a swell of traffic in and out of 430 North Canal Street on any given day.  Fielding that flow of clients and colleagues and assorted other visitors to Family Services is our fabulous reception team, headed up by Connie Rascon (pictured left).  A smile needs no translating, and that is evidenced daily when visitors enter our lobby and are welcomed with that universal language. 

Rascon has been receiving FSMV callers (by telephone and in person) for over three years.  Her role managing the reception area involves ongoing multi-tasking and being asked a million questions – often into the early evening hours.  Her strategy?  “It varies daily,” says she.  “But I try to let everyone know where I am in the process of finishing a task – just so they know I am working on it!  Even if it’s just to say, ‘I’m still looking into it.’ ”  As that first impression our visitors have of Family Services, she and her colleagues go out of their way to try and make them feel comfortable by welcoming them all by name.  “I notice a lot of people appreciate that gesture,” shares Connie.  Enjoying relaxing music and binge watching Friends on television fuels her in her off hours and helps her to show up with a smile – day in and day out.  We appreciate YOU Connie and our entire Family Services team for the difference you make!

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, a non-profit social service agency engaged in game changing work which helps children and families live their BEST lives, was established in 1854 as the Lawrence City Mission.  During its first 70 years, the organization was primarily concerned with providing material assistance to newly arrived mill workers in the City of Lawrence.  With the advent of the New Deal and the implementation of federal programs in the 1930’s, the organization shifted its mission to align with the national trend in the field of social work which focused on self-improvement and counseling.  This shift inspired a name change to reflect its new focus, and the City Mission became Family Service Association of Greater Lawrence (FSAGL).  The 1980s brought another significant shift as the organization expanded to provide group programs focused on care and prevention.  Since 1985, the organization has grown from a staff of seven to a staff of 80+ providing over 20 treatment, prevention, and outreach and education programs. In 2013, Family Services adopted a new name, Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, which reflects the growth in the scope and reach of its services over its nearly 160-year history.  

Our purpose at Family Services is to drive outcomes, and we continue do so by nurturing inner strengths, teaching life skills, championing emotional wellness and providing vital community-based resources in the Merrimack Valley.  If you or someone you know would like to be a part of the work we do here, please check out our current employment opportunities on our Job Postings page.



Grandparents as Caregivers

Posted in Community on December 11th, 2018 with No Comments

Nationwide, 2.7 million grandparents are raising grandchildren, and according to census figures, about one-fifth of those have incomes that fall below the poverty line.  A recent PBS News Hour spotlight on this issue suggests that their ranks are increasing with the number of grandparents raising grandchildren in the United States up 7 percent from 2009.  Factors such as the opiate epidemic, military deployment and a growth in the number of women incarcerated continue to bolster this trend.

Many of these grandparents are living on fixed incomes and managing chronic illnesses or a disability.  “People who step forward, step forward because there is a crisis in their family and apparently don’t take into account their own limitations,” said Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto, who has researched grandparent caregiving in the United States.  Raising grandchildren takes a heavy toll on grandparents according to a 2018 article entitled This is the Age of Grandparents in The Atlantic.  Higher-than-normal rates of depression, sleeplessness, emotional problems, and chronic health problems like hypertension and diabetes; feelings of exhaustion, loneliness, and isolation; a sense of having too little privacy, and too little time to spend with their spouses, friends, and other family members.  All of these stressors heighten the pressure put upon those grandparents who assume the role of primary caregiver.

Here in the Merrimack Valley especially, there exists a disproportionately high rate of poverty among grandparents raising grandchildren, with more than 40 percent reporting unmet economic or social-service needs—for themselves or, more often, their grandchildren.  As more and more grandparents step into parental roles, support services become increasingly essential. That urgency is exhibited in the bi-weekly Grandparent Support Group hosted at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Family & Community Resource Center (FRC) located at One Union Street in Lawrence.  The facilitated bi-lingual group discussions are free and open to to all area grandparents navigating the obstacles associated with raising (or helping to raise) grandchildren.  “Here, we welcome all age groups,” notes the group’s facilitator and FRC Family Partner Maggie DeLosSantos.  “We have about 10 parents/grandparents attending each session.  They really look forward to coming here.  These gatherings offer an opportunity to exchange ideas and ask questions – to share struggles and solutions.”  Just hearing from others balancing similar responsibilities, people who have been there, can uplift spirits.  

Although the burden can be overwhelming, helping to raise grandchildren also affords grandparents a golden opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child.  The FRC Grandparent Support Group offers that forum for recognizing and seizing such opportunities.  “The content here in our group is great.  But, what keeps me coming back is Maggie, our facilitator,” comments Isabel (pictured above at right), a longtime participant.  To that, Maggie replies, “I make certain that everyone in the group can stay connected outside of our meetings as things come up back in their homes.  It’s great to see how they really do stay in touch with one another.”  This week, the group will celebrate these bonds (along with their grandchildren) at the FRC’s annual holiday celebration.  “Good friendships have formed as a result of our time together here sharing our experiences,” shares Ms. DeLosSantos with a bright smile as she concludes another productive morning empowering parents to be their best selves as grandparents raising children.

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley partners with the Department of Children and Families to provide the Family & Community Resource Center, located at One Union Street in Lawrence 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 offerings 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. is a nonprofit site also offering grandparents resources, tools and ideas on how to get help and make the most of raising grandchildren.



Spa Treatment…

Posted in Community on December 6th, 2018 with No Comments

Fitness Saturdays Empower Parents to Be Well

It’s a Saturday morning, and a dozen women fill a conference style room which has, for a few hours, been transformed into a yoga studio.  Rainbow colored yoga mats cover the floor, chairs and tables have been moved off to the side and the atmosphere is… tranquil.  The instructor cues the students to focus on their breathing as she begins to lead them in practice of the ancient eight-limbed system of yoga – a practice much revered for its myriad healing properties.  From the determined looks on the participants’ faces and the energy building in the room, these women are all in.  That momentum is sustained as the instructor leads them deeper into a series of postures and then eventually into a few minutes of quiet Savasana (rest) on their mats as the class concludes.  The instructor is Certified Nutritionist Belkis Fermin, and yoga represents just one portion of the three-part Fitness Saturday wellness curriculum offered monthly at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Family and Community Resource Center.  The physical wellness component is bolstered by a nutrition-centered lecture and cooking demonstration.  While their children are cared for on site, the freely offered programming allows area parents to pause and take some time out for themselves to focus on their own well being as well as that of their family.

Education, Exercise and Cooking…  Ms. Fermin takes care to distribute equal weight to each of these areas throughout her two hour workshops.  “I try to relate our curriculum to things that are of concern for the parents who participate.  I often begin my lesson plan by curating a recipe, and then making certain modifications (i.e., swapping out brown sugar for white, or using whole wheat flour where flour is called for).  Parents need to be aware of what they are feeding their kids.”  Last month’s Fitness Saturday focused on nutrition problems commonly experienced by adolescents, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.  Sharing content from Kids Health, Fermin centered her lesson on warning signs for parents and best practices for supporting children who present symptoms of these types of eating disorders.  Serious medical illnesses, eating disorders often go along with other problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, and substance use and can lead to the development of serious physical health problems, such as heart conditions or kidney failure.  Throughout the program’s educational session, the parents are invited to chime in with their own personal questions and concerns of which there is plenty.

The exercise, or movement, session provides participants with an opportunity to engage in some self-care which the instructor believes is the foundation of a family’s well being.  During this component accessible practices (such as yoga) are demonstrated and (gently) prescribed as a wise antidote to the stress that naturally presents when balancing the responsibilities of a job with caring for children and a home.  Next up is the cooking – where, once again, the approach is hands-on.  Cutting boards and knives are dispersed upon which green and red peppers are diced and cilantro and onions are chopped.  “The cooking component is our last portion of these wellness sessions,” shares Ms. Fermin.  “Participants really enjoy this 30 or so minutes.  It’s where the lesson comes alive!”  As her recipe unfolds, the conference room is once again transformed (this time into a kitchen), and the scent of garlic and tomato fills the air.  There is continued conversation and inquiry which the instructor fields in real time before the group sits down to enjoy their finished product and an exhale after a full morning devoted to being well.

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley partners with the Department of Children and Families to provide the Family & Community Resource Center, located at One Union Street in Lawrence 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 wellness or 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.





Posted in Mentoring on December 5th, 2018 with No Comments

“There is absolutely no greater feeling than selflessly serving someone else.”

Last week Family Services took a moment out of the busy season to pause and recognize volunteer mentors from our Stand & Deliver, Success Mentors and Big Friends Little Friends programs. In doing so, our mentoring team did an incredible job of highlighting the great work of each of these three programs, and saluting the volunteers who drive their outcomes. “Tonight is all about you,” noted Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s CEO Liz Sweeney as she honored the mentors in attendance for our Mentor Appreciation reception. “While I applaud our staff for the great work they do with our mentoring programs, they cannot do it alone.”

Sweeney then went on to share the story of the gentlemen honored (by Family Services) as  “Mentor of the Year”… Scott Paganelli.  Scott (pictured above with Family Services CEO Liz Sweeney) has been matched in our Big Friends Little Friends program for about a year and half with Bryan.  When our mentoring team approached Scott about mentoring a 10 year old autistic boy, Scott did not hesitate to say “yes” as he knows personally what it is like to live with a disability.  Since being matched, Scott has been the perfect mentor for Bryan, consistently demonstrating great patience and ingenuity in his outings with his mentee.  As a result of their relationship, Bryan has flourished.

We recently caught up with Scott and asked him why “giving back” is, for him, such a priority in life.  To which he replied…   “I was raised by two fantastic, supportive parents who continue to provided  lifelong examples of serving others and volunteerism, which I have throughout my life attempted emulate. Additionally, others, too numerous to count, have been incredibly generous to me throughout my life, with their time and guidance. I’ve greatly enjoyed my time working with children especially, as an adult scouter with the Boy Scouts of America, founder of The Challenger Sports League of Greensboro, NC, an award-winning 501c3 providing sports and recreational opportunities for Greater Greensboro’s disabled youth and now with Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Big Friends Little Friends mentoring program. I’m grateful to have the full support of my wife, Rose, who has embraced Bryan as a member of our family.”

Tragically, a year into their match, Bryan was diagnosed with leukemia and spent several months undergoing medical treatment in Boston.  During this time Scott traveled to Boston to visit Bryan on a number of occasions, cheering up his Little Friend with his favorite food, toys and other tokens of his affection.  His presence has been a tremendous source of support for Bryan and his mother throughout this emotional ordeal.  In addition to his friendship, Scott also launched a Go Fund Me page which helped to raise thousands of dollars to offset Bryan’s medical expenses and support his mother who had lost her job due to the need to be by Bryan’s side in the hospital. All the while, Scott searched for other resources for the family and found a grant that pays transportation costs for kids undergoing cancer treatment.  Scott applied for the grant on the family’s behalf and is awaiting a decision on the request.  “Serving as a mentor to my Little buddy, Bryan, has truly forced me to step considerably outside of my traditional comfort zone,  particularly in light of his ongoing challenges as a young fellow on the autism spectrum, and the unanticipated challenges his cancer diagnosis brought to his family this year.  There is absolutely no greater feeling than selflessly serving someone else, especially when you are supporting such a fantastic, loving family.” 

In the midst of his incredible commitment to Bryan and his family, Scott supports our Big Friends Little Friends program on countless other fronts – attending virtually every event since he has been matched including Bowl a Strike for Kids and our annual Rhapsody Gala. He also serves on our Big Friends Little Friends Program Support Committee helping us to source pricing for match activities. In closing, we asked Scott if there are lessons that Bryan teaches him?  “I went into this new adventure with him with a bit of apprehension and a general understanding of the importance established routines are to individuals on the spectrum.  I also know how life can throw you unexpected curve balls without notice.  This was one of my greatest concerns.  During one of our very first outings, Bryan and I had a thorough discussion on the importance of flexibility.  Bryan responded with great understanding, enthusiasm and gratitude.  His willingness to be flexible while we scramble to come up with plans B, C and sometimes even D at the last minute, is inspiring, particularly as I know how challenging this is for him.  Also, his eagerness to attempt small life lessons, skills and new experiences such as using a knife to cut apples for a homemade apple pie, or having him help me work the gas pump to fill my tank on one of our adventures, makes me appreciate how much he is stepping outside of his own comfort zone, how much he is giving to our relationship and the trust he places in me.”

As she concluded her praise for the service of the  volunteers who filled the Mentor Appreciation reception, Ms. Sweeney extended the organization’s collective appreciation with… “What can be said about people who volunteer other than THANK YOU.”  We are so grateful to Scott and to all of our mentors for your selfless service of others and for the difference YOU make in the lives of these children!

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 holiday season by signing up to be a Big Friend today!  Check out one of our great matches… Omar and Boris.