by Judie Jerald
Much is being written and discussed about community engagement these days. It is not a new idea, of course. Community was an important tenet of Ancient Greece and also in the United States, through churches and granges, as people settled and pioneered throughout the country.
I am particularly interested in ways community members, agencies and groups, when they work together and combine resources, can better support children and families.
For many years, I knew a family in Vermont who had many obstacles—so many, that at first glance it seemed almost impossible to keep the family together.
As a child, the father had suffered from a loss of oxygen that left him cognitively impaired. The mother suffered from mental illness. When I came to know the family, the two children, a boy and a girl, were one and two years of age.
I, along with many community members, were involved with the family for the next 16 years.
For the two children, we worked with the child care community to find high-quality, full day, full year child care. The father worked full-time, and the mother was not capable of safely caring for the children alone. Community members, through a social service agency, transported the children to day care every day. The children remained with the same family child care provider for many years. This alone gave them a solid foundation with secure relationships.
From kindergarten through third grade the two children were part of a public school comprehensive poverty program that was modeled on Head Start. They had afterschool care with their child care provider. One of the children had some medical issues, and the school nurse worked with the local hospital to cover the operation expenses. We approached a local dentist to provide dental care at a reduced cost, and I went to a local sporting goods store every year for donations of basketball sneakers so the boy could play on the school team. The school nurse visited the family regularly and worked with the father to make sure he followed up with the children’s appointments.
The father never missed one of the children’s school activities but the mother had by now left the family.
Hygiene was a problem, and we set up a weekly afterschool tutorial for the children and taught them how to do their own laundry, take a shower, shampoo their hair and prepare simple meals. The community provided summer camp scholarships every year. Each winter a local group provided outdoor clothing and boots.
As the children went into middle school, those of us who had been working with the family during their early years passed on information about the children’s strengths and needs and continued to provide support. Both children were part of Upward Bound, a program for teenagers that teaches resiliency and self-sufficiency. Both children did well in school, and the guidance counselors followed them closely to make sure they got direction and support during their high school years, as well as help in applying for colleges and for scholarships. Both went to and graduated from four year colleges.
These children went through school in the same classes as two of my children. I saw them participating in sports events, at birthday parties, at proms, at graduation. They had after school and summer jobs in local stores. They were attractive, smart kids who got a chance because the community enveloped them and took care of them—kept an eye on them throughout their childhood to make sure they had what they needed to grow and develop.
Community support seems increasingly necessary in today’s diverse society. Families often live far away from their family support systems, and may find themselves isolated because of job mobility, poverty, single parenting or mental health and substance abuse issues.
I have learned that when a community encircles such families in need, the trajectory can lead to positive outcomes for children and parents alike.
I saw the girl—a lovely young woman who is a teacher, married, with a child herself—recently, and I mentioned her father, who had passed away.
I said, “Your Dad did the best he could—he loved you both very much.”
And she said, without rancor or anger, but definitely letting me know, “You don’t know what it was like.”
And indeed I don’t know the difficulties and fears they faced as children.
But I do know that the community circle that raised them made it much better than it would otherwise have been, and gave them the opportunity to live full, rewarding lives. I know that community members and agencies can fill many gaps—and make up for a lot that may be missing. And I know that the more we take care of each other, the better off we all are.