Fourteen weeks earlier, six families descended to the basement meeting room in a Bronx homeless shelter. They had never met each other. But they had signed up to spend every Tuesday evening together, to talk about their problems and vulnerabilities as well as their hope for more familial peace and better, sturdier relationships.
On December 5, these six families—parents and kids ranging from 2-17—became the latest graduates of our Strengthening Families program, the work of our P.O.W.E.R. (Providing Opportunities, Wellness, Education, and Resources) team. This evidence-based program, funded by New York State’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, seeks out families that present as at risk of substance abuse. Using a network of government and human services agencies, Children’s Aid staff recruit families that experience difficult relationships, especially between parents and kids, and offers them the tools and space to improve. The results are incredible.
There is a consistent structure to each meeting. The families share a meal together and then share some initial thoughts and feelings. Then, the parents and the kids split into two groups (with day care provided for the little ones) to focus on specific issues and run through activities that build communication skills. Finally, everyone reconvenes to demonstrate their new skills.
Eugene Heard leads Strengthening Families for Children’s Aid. “I see something really organic and authentic,” he said. “In the beginning there’s some push back. You’re building a relationship. It’s more of a bonding and trust issue. They’re not sure what the class is. Some have been misled into thinking this is typical parenting class but it’s more. By the end, they don’t want the classes to end.”
This is no small commitment. Fourteen weeks, two hours each week. Emotions run high. To their immense credit, staff create an environment that clearly feels safe to the families.
“Before this program, we didn’t know how to communicate,” said Elizabeth, a parent with her husband, Jose, of two boys. “We argued every single day. Now we talk it out.”
Nearly every family that graduated from this session echoed a similar sentiment.
Strengthening Families is a nationally recognized program that has touched the lives of more than 100,000 people over its two decades of existence. Studies have shown that students that complete the program with their parents are significantly less likely to have tried alcohol, gotten drunk, or smoked cigarettes.
Like all the groups that had come before it, these families—especially the parents—hoped to figure out a way to stay in contact. They were also rewarded for their tremendous progress. Every participant received a certificate accompanied by words of encouragement from their group leaders. And families took home a gift bag filled with photos and gift cards and additional treats.
But Preston Sharp, a prevention youth worker, reminded the families that this was not the end to the work they had to do. “We can’t leave today and forget tomorrow,” he said. “We have the next generation here,” and they were learning the skills that would carry them through adulthood and parenthood.
After dessert, kids and parents alike mugged for photos. But the majority of them blended families and kids, proof that they had become in just 14 weeks a clan of their own.
The Strengthening Families Team