Tupelo • To continue serving families in need across North Mississippi, Families First is stretching its resources.
“People still need us,” said Shelia Davis, program co-director in Lee County. “Our phones haven’t stopped ringing; our classes are still meeting.”
Families First, which grew out of the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi, provides services to families in 42 counties in the northern half of the state. In the last 12 months, Families First staff provided nearly 50,000 services to help families stabilize and thrive in the region.
The organization’s social workers connect families in crisis with resources through in-house programs and services throughout the community. Its centers offer literacy classes and an online high school program to help parents advance their education and better provide for children.
Kadijah Hearn of Verona said Families First has helped her be a better mother to her 4-year-old son, Kissiah.
“As a first-time mom, I was struggling to have time and space with my child,” said Hearn, who just graduated from the Toyota Family Program offered through Families First.
During the two years she was part of the program, Hearn learned how to better communicate with her son, so he in turn would be more confident about communicating at school.
“I’m so proud of how much he has grown,” Hearn said. “They really did a lot for me.”
However, changes in the organization’s funding have stressed its capacity.
In January, the federal shutdown disrupted the flow of block grants for Temporary Aid for Needy Families. The majority of the funding for Families First comes from TANF funds distributed through the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
Families First had to lay off 60 full-time and 75 part-time staff serving North Mississippi. The remaining staff took pay cuts. They temporarily closed 10 centers that were located in leased spaces. The organization, which provides services to 42 North Mississippi counties from 15 centers, currently has a staff of 110 full-time employees and 12 part-time employees.
After the shutdown ended, DHS funding restarted, but not at levels that would allow Families First to rehire the laid-off staff.
“They are funding us at a different level,” said executive director Christi Webb. “We have restructured.”
Webb referred questions about specific funding to DHS. The Daily Journal submitted questions per DHS policy, but has received no response.
Families First has been able to reopen the 10 centers that closed in spaces made available by the DHS and county supervisor boards. DHS executive director John Davis has been helpful during the difficult period, Webb said. Much of the staff who were laid off are social workers, Webb said. Most have been able to find new positions with DHS, Life Core, clinics and agencies around the region.
Individual donors and businesses have stepped up to help meet the needs of families.
“We really cannot thank the community for how much they’ve supported us in so many ways,” Webb said. “We wouldn’t be here without the community.”
The staff has been applying for grants and added a Paypal link to its website to help make it easier for individual donors to help, Webb said.
“We’re still hunting for funding to fill those holes,” Webb said.
More with less
Though with a smaller staff, Families First is continuing to serve the north half of the state.
“We are still doing all the things we’ve done with less people,” Shelia Davis said. “We continue to give people the tools, resources and connections to the community.”
For Families First, leveraging resources is part of the job, said Sandra Blanch, a Families First field educator who serves as the program coordinator for the Toyota Family Program.
“As social workers and field educators, we’re used to having to be creative,” Blanch said. “We’ve always had to do a lot with a little.”
It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve leaned on each other and the communities they’ve served to get things done.
“We have to remember what our mission is,” Blanch said. “We’ve supported each other.”
Families First uses a Generation Plus approach to helping families, Webb said. The organization focuses on education, economic support through workforce development, health and well-being.
Social workers provide case management for families. The centers offer classes covering family life skills, including parenting, healthy relationships and conflict resolution.
The programs reach thousands of people across the region. From May 2018 to April 2019, Families First provided more than 47,000 services.
The workforce development efforts are really essential to help families.
“We want to help people get a job and keep a job,” Webb said. “It makes the whole family more stable.”
The centers host online learning resources to help parents earn high school diplomas, with access to computers and trained teachers, Webb said. They assist foster parents with continuing education to meet certification requirements. They work with families in crisis, helping them connect with resources in the community. Its reentry and diversion programs help parents return to their families and a productive life after facing criminal charges.
The center is continuing its work to bring together community partners to address needs, like children having safe places to sleep. The Beds for Kids ministry, which was developed in partnership with area churches and is funded by private donations, has experienced tremendous growth, Webb said. In the last year, the program has built and distributed 200 beds. Since January, the program has received $20,000 in donations.
“It has taken off,” Webb said. “We deliver a bed every day.”
The center and its staff say they see the programs working and are committed to keeping them available.
“We’re here for people,” Davis said.