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Proud to be a SUCCESS MENTOR!

Posted in Mentoring on November 28th, 2018

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

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

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

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. 

FIVE CRITERIA FOR POSITIVE DISCIPLINE:

  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.

 

 

I Just Want to Help Out a Kid

Posted in Mentoring on November 8th, 2018

Andover Firefighter is a Brand New Big Friend

“I have some time.  My wife and I do not have any children.  I just want to help out a kid,” shares Andover Firefighter Ian Timmons on a recent Tuesday afternoon…  And so here he is at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Canal Street offices making good on his intention and being matched with Joel a bright-eyed 4th grader at Lawrence’s Arlington School.  On that particular afternoon, the two new pals were “matched” – the term used to signify their new status as Big Friend (Ian) and Little Friend (Joel).  The meeting, facilitated by a Family Services’ staff member, represents a first encounter for the two, and it’s a moment brimming with smiles for both the mentor and mentee.

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.

With a wait list of over 100 local children seeking a mentor through Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Big Friends, Little Friends program, Joel and his Mom have anticipated “match day” for some time.  Same goes for Ian… “Over the years, friends always ask me to be a godfather to their kids.  I’ve always wanted to do this.  Now, here we are.”  Over the course of their initial introduction the two naturally began to warm up to one another and quickly discovered they have much in common – football being one of their shared passions.  “When I grow up, I want to be a policeman,” announces Joel to everyone on hand for the meeting.  With his new Big Friend the nine-year old will likely get a great glimpse of the lives of those like Ian who serve the public and enforce the law.  Timmons, was honored in 2016 by the Lawrence Exchange Club as a Firefighter of the Year.

No small coincidence the two have much common ground as our Big Friends, Little Friends staff devote a good chunk of time in advance of these meetings to ensure that matches will succeed.  “Match meetings are a great experience for both the mentor, the mentee and the parent(s). It’s the first time they meet, and the feelings of excitement and nervousness are both present. It’s the moment they have been waiting for.  And, for mentees it’s the moment they’ve waited 2-3 years for,” commented Big Friends Little Friends Coordinator Katie Buttner.   “To meet the person that will become their mentor is such a fun and exciting environment to be in. I am so lucky to get to see the look of joy and happiness in their eyes as they meet.”

Best wishes to Ian and Joel as they embark on their brand new friendship.  Family Services is grateful to Ian for carving out some time, despite his long hours and demanding duties, to be that certain “sombeody” for a child.  A big THANK YOU to all of our volunteer Big Friends for the difference you make!

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!  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.  And, check out one of our other great matches… Omar and Boris.

 

 

Beyond Being a Student

Posted in Community, Mentoring on November 5th, 2018

Success Mentors Back for Second Year in Lawrence Schools

Last autumn at the high energy kickoff of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Success Mentors program at Lawrence High School, both mentors and mentees were asked to share their goals for the coming school year.  “I hope to make my mentee feel like he is cared for as an individual, beyond being a student,” offered one participant.  “I hope to help my mentee accomplish his goals,” the new mentor went on to add.  Intentions such as this, which reflect the whole of a kid’s well being, fuels the program’s success with achievement benchmarks that go well beyond the mentees’ grades.  Angela Keizl, a volunteer mentor in the program, is one shining illustration of the program’s scope.  Throughout the school year Ms. Keizl supports her mentee on the academic front, but alongside that effort she is there to cheer her mentee Marie Carmen on in her personal passion for dance – even accompanying her to her dance classes.  “Through her dance studies, Marie Carmen has gained some much needed self-confidence.  Watching her confidence soar as she throws herself into productions, takes on new creative responsibilities and develops friendships has been for me a profound pleasure.”  On Tuesday afternoon, November 13, the Success Mentors partnership between Lawrence High School and Family Services of the Merrimack Valley will kick-off year two of the program with high hopes for building on the accomplishments of last year.

The Success Mentors partnership between Lawrence High School and Family Services of the Merrimack Valley specifically targets young people identified as being at risk for dropping out of school.  The program matches students with teachers, administrators, and other individuals within the high school who advise the students, providing guidance, motivation and accountability for attending school and staying on track with academic demands.  The mentors also serve as “connectors,” helping to flag challenges causing absenteeism and connecting mentees to appropriate school personnel that would otherwise remain untapped.  “Our goal is to inspire students to attend school every day,” said the school’s Dean of Family & Community Jasmitila Duran, a 2008 graduate of Lawrence High School herself.  Supporting the mentees in other areas of their lives often has proven to be integral in driving that good attendance.

Next week’s year two launch event taking place at Lawrence High School will offer mentors, mentees (and their families) an opportunity to acquaint themselves, establish some match goals, and enjoy dinner together in a supportive setting.  “It was a monumental task to get this Success Mentors program off of the ground last year, and much credit goes out to our Family Services mentoring staff members Leah Feroce and Michelle Martinez for doing so,” commented Family Services’ Chief Executive Officer Liz Sweeney.  “This is a life-changing program, and Family Services is thrilled to continue to lead this effort.”  By pairing students with internal mentors at Lawrence High School, and new this year also at the Arlington Middle School, the Success Mentors program is built to serve as a framework in which these volunteers can have an ongoing presence in the life of their mentee and make a significant impact in their life.  The reciprocal effect of that framework was well put by one Mentor Maria Jarostchuk… “I thought that as a mentor I would spend my time teaching my mentee, and I was so wrong.  I have spent more time learning, as my mentee Surenisha has taught ME so much.”

The Massachusetts (MA) Success Mentors Collaborative is a partnership among three youth mentoring programs in Massachusetts that each serve the three poorest cities in Massachusetts. Led by Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, with the Holyoke Boys & Girls Clubs and Springfield School Volunteers, the MA Success Mentors Collaborative will adopt the practices of the evidence-based “Success Mentors” model, launched by the Obama Administration in 2010, to enhance recruitment, training, and monitoring and support activities to better serve the target population of youth who are currently, or at risk of becoming, chronically absent.  That program quickly became the largest, most comprehensive in-school mentoring effort in the nation within a single city (New York) reaching nearly 10,000 students who were chronically absent or at risk of becoming chronically absent.  Under the “Success Mentors” model students are connected with caring adults who serve as trained and supported motivators, problem solvers, and advocates to form supportive relationships, identify and celebrate student’s strengths, promote their attendance every day, and connect them with the necessary supports to keep them on track and thriving.  Through this system mentors are also “connectors,” helping to flag challenges causing absenteeism and connecting mentees to appropriate school personnel that would otherwise remain untapped. In replicating the “Success Mentors” model, the Collaborative will sub-contract with Mass Mentoring Partnership (MMP) to provide training and technical support.

 

More Salads, More Vegetables, and More Whole Grain Bread

Posted in Community on November 1st, 2018

Family Community & Resource Center’s CHOICES Series… Shifting Nutrition Habits


“When you enter this room, cooperation is expected,” reads the sign on the classroom wall at the new home of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Family & Community Resource Center.  That instruction goes hand in hand with the conversational nature of much of the Center’s programming.  The weekly CHOICES: Steps Toward Health classes are no exception.  The series, presented in partnership with the UMASS Extension Nutrition Education Program (NEP), teaches participants, through discussions and hands-on experiences, how to improve the nutritional quality of the meals they serve their families.  Through small group sessions the award-winning curriculum, offered through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), emphasizes nutrition, food shopping, and food safety while engaging participants in group discussions, cooking demonstrations, food tasting, fun physical activities, and other hands-on learning.  Another pillar of the CHOICES approach is that ALL participants’  backgrounds and experiences are respected and valued.  

Prego vs. Ragu, whole milk vs. skim, white bread vs. wheat…  there is room for comparison(s) at every turn, and in her presentation the instructor, Nutrition Educator Evelin Diaz Pena, makes the most of every opportunity for highlighting simple nutritional edits.  Diaz-Pena credits the program’s learning by dialogue approach with the students’ ability to remain engaged with the content she shares.  “The teaching style is a combination of sharing information, offering visuals and reviewing the content in the materials we distribute.  It’s a little bit of everything.  But, it’s pretty much learning by dialogue.”  And does she assign homework over the course of the series?  “The only thing I ask is that each student set a goal. It’s not worth it that I’m here just talking each week.  I expect the students to make some changes in their nutrition and come back to me each week to share those examples. Things like, one new vegetable that they tried.  I ask of them what they are doing different than before?”

Cost effectiveness studies in a number of states have shown that for every dollar spent on this type of educational programming, $3 to $10 were saved on lower health care costs and increased productivity.  Studies conducted by administrators of  EFNEP illustrate the content’s impact…

Changing Adult Behaviors

At the completion of the program:

  • 95% of participants showed a positive change in consumption for at least one of the food groups.
  • 90% of participants showed improvement in one or more nutrition practices (i.e., plan meals, prepare foods without adding salt, read nutrition labels, or have children eat breakfast).
  • 83% of participants showed improvement in one or more food resource management practices (i.e., plan meals, compare prices, not run out of food, or use grocery lists).
  • 69% of participants showed improvement in one or more food safety practices (i.e., thawing and storing foods properly).
  • 33% of participants reported an increase in physical activity.

Each CHOICES class wraps up with a healthy meal enjoyed by the students family-style.  This component offers participants an opportunity for ongoing conversation, community and again that window for collaboration that is so essential to retaining the content and making forward progress.  “I come here because this is where I live – in Lawrence.  These classes help me in my home.  They help me and my family eat better,” shares a grandmother who is a “regular” with the group.  She takes the valuable material she learns here each week and then shares it with her daughter as they together care for her grandchildren.  “I shop different now.  More salads.  More vegetables,  And more pan (bread)… whole grain bread.” 

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.

 

Child Support

Posted in Fatherhood on October 31st, 2018

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

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

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.