TUPELO – Collin Billingsley started out in the community mental health field to help make a difference in the lives and minds of people.

He worked as a licensed professional counselor in behavioral health at North Mississippi Medical Center and as a psychology instructor at Northeast Mississippi Community College for the last 20 years.

For the past six months, he has been working as the Addiction Education Director at the Family Resource Center in Tupelo. The Addiction Education and Recovery program was added last July. It is one of the many programs recently added by the expanding organization.

Tupelo’s Family Resource Center has seen rapid expansion since it was chosen in 2016 as one of two community agencies to expand Mississippi’s Families First program.

Since the Mississippi Department of Human Services got involved and reorganized these organizations, there has been a significant increase in funding from the state. That has resulted in new centers built across the state at an accelerated rate, expansion of programs and a substantial staff increase.

The financial windfall that resulted from the partnership two years ago has allowed FRC to open 15 centers across Northeast Mississippi and increase staff from 30 to 260 employees.

Today, there are Family Resource Center campuses in 16 counties including in cities like Oxford, Southaven, Columbus, Hernando, Grenada, Greenville, Houston, Philadelphia, Tunica, Indianola, Clarksdale and Fulton.

The organization’s far-reaching goal is to have one center per two counties in north Mississippi.

“The Family Resource Center has seen tremendous growth with Families First for Mississippi,” said Christi Webb, Family Resource Center executive director. “We have gone from our original center in Tupelo that covered Lee and its adjoining counties to 16 centers serving 46 counties, basically all of north Mississippi. We serve families with the goal of helping them move to self-sufficiency and stability and away from dependence on government assistance.”

Among the new programs is the addiction education one that Billingsley now oversees. It started in November when the Family Resource Center decided to turn its focus to combating the opioid epidemic.

“Regarding the adult population, we currently have received about 200 referrals from local circuit courts... about 95 percent of these referrals involve drug charges, and these clients are participating in our addiction classes along with other services when indicated,” Billingsley said.

In 2017, MDHS received more than 30,000 household referrals. More than 23,000 of those referrals received services from Families First.

Families First

Families First programs have existed for more than 19 years, serving families in Mississippi through a variety of community organizations.

But the 2016 partnership between the state and two agencies – the Family Resource Center and the Mississippi Community Education Center at the University of Southern Mississippi – expanded it throughout the state.

Families First now combines the efforts of the two nonprofit community organizations, sometimes combining resources to expand programs jointly or working on the most critical issues facing each organization’s respective portion of the state.

“The Family Resource Center of North Mississippi has a solid history of providing quality services to families in Lee County and the surrounding counties, and has partnered with MDHS on many grant projects since its inception,” said Amy Harris, special projects coordinator at FRC.

And the Families First program isn’t the only expansion FRC has seen.

In April, Toyota and the National Center for Families Learning provided a three-year $175,000 grant for the Toyota Family Learning program at FRC. And last year, United Way awarded the center a $42,450 grant.

At the same time, FRC provided thousands of dollars to programs in northeast Mississippi counties last year. That included $28,000 in November to open Talbot House Bakery for women in the Talbot ministries sobriety program and $75,000 in December to bring the Best Buddies program to a DeSoto County high school.

Other grants went to various area projects or conferences. In June, the Center funded the expansion of The Orchard’s SummerSALT reading camp. In January, a grant was provided to host The Autism Center Resource Conference in Tupelo.

Programs’ impact

Families First also partners with dozens of nonprofit agencies, schools, churches and other organizations in north Mississippi.

“The Families First for Mississippi grant does provide funds for the Family Resource Center to partner with agencies that are already doing great work in north Mississippi,” Harris said. “We don’t want to duplicate services.”

The centers are all rented, except for the one in Tupelo. Campuses have classrooms, computer labs and oftentimes rooms for childcare. Some campuses share space with MDHS county offices.

“FRC campuses share space with MDHS county offices so that clients can be easily referred to Families First for Mississippi for its free services while they are visiting MDHS for benefits or other needs,” Harris said.

Families First employees are also placed in offices at community colleges to assist clients with job training and employment. In the meantime, referrals may be made for other services.

The organization provides aid under five pillars:

  • Workforce and job readiness
  • Literacy
  • Education
  • Youth development
  • Parenting
  • Aiding families, youth and unemployed residents through seminars, workshops, presentations and classes given at schools, community centers, churches and state agency offices.

Outreach officers can be found teaching at area colleges, lending a hand at a local food pantry or giving out food and information to residents in low-income apartment complexes.

The youth development program in particular has taken off since last year, with more than 21,000 participants. Nearly 2,000 are enrolled in abstinence education. The program also started Healthy Teens Rallies last September, with 2,600 students attending the most recent rally in Tupelo on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, more than 3,200 families participated in the organization’s parenting programs last year. There were also 411 participants in the fatherhood program last year, and nearly 2,000 participated in various life skills classes.

In education, the organization also offers an online high school diploma program for anyone in more than 100 school districts. It places an emphasis on at-risk students. It enrolled around 2,000 participants in the organization’s diploma program and awarded more than 200 students with diplomas last year.

In workforce training, nearly 200 participants were enrolled in GED programs last year, and more than 600 participants took job readiness classes or completed a resume in 2017.

In literacy and early childhood, more than 500 participants enrolled in child care provider training classes, with nearly 70 child care centers participating in the training. Also, 238 adults took adult education or literacy classes.

While new programs like Addiction Education will be started or continue expanding this year, there are no current plans to open new centers in 2018, as the Families First for Mississippi grant ends Sept. 30.

“We will be looking to the following year for opening new centers,” Harris said.

cristina.carreon@journalinc.com Twitter: @Ccarreon90

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