Blair Schoen is Vice President at Santa Maria Community Services, one of 98 United Way partner agencies participating in United Way’s new family-centered network. A social worker with over 40 years of experience, Schoen feels more encouraged by her work now more than ever.
“I’ve done this work for over 40 years and this is the happiest I’ve been with the way the work is going,” said Schoen. “I feel like I can go to sleep at night knowing we really are helping other people. I think it’s a huge breakthrough.”
Officially launched in March of 2018, United Way began taking a family-centered approach to its work, creating a network of 98 partner organizations working specifically on these strategies for families with the goal of scaling the work across our region. For years, so many of our agency partners have provided world class services that are recognized both locally and nationally as models of what they do, and for decades United Way has worked with each individual organization to be the best they can possibly be. But knowing that it’s seldom one thing that moves a family out of poverty, the goals and aspirations of a family may require that they access multiple resources throughout the community.
“If a child is ready for kindergarten but their parents are struggling with employment, or don’t have stable housing, and are moving from apartment to apartment, and the child moves from school to school, sometimes in the same school year, that child can be at risk of falling behind in school and potentially not graduating,” said Mike Baker, community impact director, United Way of Greater Cincinnati. “Our shift in thinking to be more family centered requires taking this excellent collection of organizations, programs and services and moving them out of silos. We have to start working together more to meet the real aspirations of families.”
In Santa Maria’s case, they’re now partnering with Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health (GCBH) and are able to offer mental health services to their families. The partnership is so close that GCBH staff are now in Santa Maria’s facilities working with their families a couple days a week.
“Because of this shift to a family centered approach with all of the United Way agencies, we’ve strengthened our partnership with a number of agencies, including GCBH,” said Schoen. “In partnering with them, we are for the first time able to offer mental health services to all the families we work with, including those who speak Spanish. We’ve never been able to do anything like that before.”
In this first year of Family Centered Learning, United Way has focused on building a foundation of learning by focusing on deeper understanding of families by using consumer insight practices to connect and understand their experiences and learn where improvements can be made in specific services.
“We have challenged our 98 organizations to get out in the community and start to have different kinds of conversations with families in poverty,” said Baker. “By the end of the summer we’ll have talked to 300-400 families in poverty across the region. This experience of connecting and listening more deeply and differently to families will help us as organizations when we work together to see where it is that we can start making improvements and innovations. The response so far to these conversations has been pretty profound.”
The Community Building Institute (CBI) in Middletown has relished the opportunity to take the time to have these conversations. They’ve been able to learn from families about what they’re doing that is working, what’s not working, and most importantly, what these families really need so CBI can be more impactful and change their lives. CBI has three families who have committed to two years of this work, and the feedback they’ve received has been better than they expected.
“We’ve never had these kinds of conversations before and it’s 100% because United Way has been comfortable with the learning process,” said Verlena Stewart, Parent Resource Center & Community Center Director, CBI Middletown. “The families we’ve interviewed have felt very powerful and important and really opened up and disclosed at a higher level than we anticipated. We feel like at the end of two years we’ll really see significant change.”
Many organizations, including Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, have created an internal family centered team to begin using these learning principles in their everyday work to help them better serve the families they work with.
“I think this has reenergized our organization,” said Antione Spriggs, mentoring manager, Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. “Typically you get resistance from people when stuff is rolling downhill, but if it’s rolling uphill people are invested. And honestly, this stuff is good stuff – it’s not just ideas – it’s actual, practical tools to help serve our students and families. Our staff is passionate about what they do, so in giving them these tools, you see that light switch go on with the passion.”
This is just one piece for United Way and its partners to begin moving the needle to achieve our No. 1 goal: to reduce poverty in our region.
“We know we are impacting these families in a big way, and it’s a lofty goal when you think about it, but I can clearly see these families being truly out of poverty through this work,” said Stewart.