Flying by the seat of our pants: The start of the Children First/CIS Family Resource Center

MAKING CONNECTIONS: Susan Seithel with one of the children she worked with in the Parents as Teachers program. The child pictured is now 21 and expecting a baby of her own. Photo courtesy of Children First/CIS

“We were flying by the seat of our pants,” says Susan Seithel with a laugh as she recalls the first years of the Children First/CIS Family Resource Center at Emma. “We would see a need in the community and then figure out a way to fill it.”

The year was 1995, and Children First was not yet the independent nonprofit it is today but rather a program of the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County. For years, the United Way board and staff members had been discussing how poverty impacts educational and employment opportunities. They decided it was time to create a specific program whose sole purpose was to go into one of the poorest areas of Buncombe County and address the needs of the families living in poverty.

The Family Resource Center at Emma was born, and Susan Seithel was hired as the first Family Resource Center coordinator.

“Emma community was chosen because Emma Elementary School had the highest number of students on the free and reduced lunch program in all of Buncombe County,” says Susan. “But those numbers were just an indicator. We really saw up close the level of poverty that existed once we got situated in the community.”

Its home was a modular classroom built in the 1940s. There was only enough room for a food pantry, clothing closet and small offices. There was no area that could be used as community space, so all classes and workshops were held either in in clients’ homes or other organizations’ meeting rooms. Susan shared office space with the Emma Elementary School’s social worker, Joan Castello, and truancy officer, Jennie Bartlett. “Working with the families and residents of Emma was truly a group effort,” Susan recalls.

During the early years of the FRCE, there was little to no parent involvement in the schools. This was a major issue Susan wanted to address, but first, she had to make sure that basic needs were being met. “The children weren’t prepared to start school ready to learn because they didn’t have enough to eat,” she says. “They didn’t have adequate clothes and medical care. Many of the parents had been unemployed for years, and there were problems with substance abuse. There was so much poverty, so much neglect and so much need.”

Although she regularly communicated with the teachers at Emma Elementary School about which students were at-risk, Susan’s most effective way to meet parents was to get in her car and drive around to houses looking for toys in the front yard. She would then knock on the door and talk to the parents about the services offered at the FRCE.

“It took some time to build up the trust with the community,” says Susan. “Once families realized all that we had to offer, they started to participate more. And whenever we offered classes or workshops, we made sure we provided food, transportation and childcare.”

In 1997, Mission/St. Joseph’s Hospital decided to facilitate a free walk-in clinic on the campus of Emma Elementary School. Although there was still only enough space for the food pantry and clothing closet, the interior was clean and well-maintained. The FRCE now shared space with a nurse practitioner and a Department of Social Services income maintenance worker, who helped residents apply for public benefits.

“Those first years of the FRCE were really about crisis care,” she recalls. “Every day was different, and I was never bored, but I always felt that if we could get out of the business of crisis, we would be in a much better place.”

After a few years, the FRCE was still providing crisis care, but it was also strengthening important partnerships that are still in place today with organizations such MANNA Food Bank, Eblen Charities, ABCCM, Asheville City Preschool, Buncombe County Schools, Smart Start of Buncombe County, the Cooperative Extension Service and more.

Local volunteers also started to get involved so services could be expanded. Susan was training parents in the Parents As Teachers program and accompanying parents to school meetings; Kathy Scott, a community volunteer, taught Motheread classes; local therapists Jim and Ann Bowen provided free group and individual therapy sessions; Celeste Collins from OnTrack Financial Counseling taught about the expense of the rent-to-own model; a free summer camp program was implemented for the children living in Woodridge Apartments; healthy cooking classes were held in local homes; and the holiday assistance program was created.

In 2002, the FRCE moved into a 2,000-square-foot modular building with a reception area, children’s play area, conference room, large clothing closet, food pantry and multiple office spaces. A thriving community garden was created to provide fresh vegetables for the food pantry.

Now, 20 years after the creation of the FRCE, the need still exists in the Emma community, as unemployment and the number of students on the free and reduced lunch program are still extremely high. But the focus of the FRCE has moved from immediate crisis care — although that is still a major component of its services — to promoting family stability though literacy and parenting classes, case management and increasing school/parent engagement.

The FRCE continues to be the hub of this community, which is still lacking resources such as a library, local grocery store or community center. Each day the cozy center, equipped with a couch and comfortable chairs, a children’s play area and a full kitchen complete with a family-style table, is filled with residents coming in to receive services, community leaders coming through for a tour, volunteers answering phones and making food boxes, donors dropping off food or clothing, and parents attending classes, getting assistance or just coming in to give updates on their family’s progress.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity,” says Susan. “The Emma community has many strengths, as do the parents who used the resources we had to offer. But they also offered to volunteer and help their neighbors in many ways. Children First and the United Way created a wonderful model that is still meeting the needs of the community today. I am really proud and honored to have been a part of it.”

Jodi Ford is the outreach and engagement coordinator for Children First/ Communities In Schools of Buncombe County, a local nonprofit that believes all children deserve to reach their full potential. The organization helps achieve this by bringing together resources to help children succeed at school and home. Services range from providing a food box, tutoring and mentoring in and after school, getting school supplies, teaching parenting skills or helping families meet basic needs. Along with direct services, Children First/CIS also advocates for policies that support families with local and state policy makers. To find out more, go to www.childrenfirstcisbc.org.

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