Once a month in Dillingham, a small group of fathers and their children get together for an activity chosen by the fathers. It might be pure fun. It might be instructive, too. The important thing is they do it together, strengthening family ties and community bonds.
In Fairbanks, a faith-based child development center offers concrete help for families in need as well as activities that help parents connect with others.
Both are examples of how a national initiative called Strengthening Families works on the ground through existing early childhood programs to help families become stronger and better able to weather the stresses of contemporary life.
Why are some families able to roll with the punches that life brings, while others are not? What makes a strong family? Research by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, found that families with certain attributes have lower rates of child abuse and neglect.
Strengthening Families works with early childhood programs to help families develop those attributes, which they call protective factors. The five protective factors are: parental resilience; social connections; knowledge of parenting and child development; concrete support in times of need; and social and emotional development.
The Fatherhood Program
At Bristol Bay Native Association’s (BBNA) Head Start in Dillingham, the Fatherhood Program was the brainchild of a Family Support Aide, a father whose own child had been in Head Start. The dads decide the activities based on their own interests. If costs are involved, the dads raise the money to support it, according to Carolyn Hoseth, Family Services Supervisor at BBNA. The Fatherhood Program builds two protective factors: social connections and concrete support in times of need.
Open Arms Child Development Center
Open Arms Child Development Center is a faith-based community early childhood center and one of the 8% of early childhood centers nationally that is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. When Open Arms was first selected for a Strengthening Families mini-grant, the center decided to focus on two protective factors: social connections and concrete support in times of need.
Open Arms tried out many different approaches, Executive Director Lenetta Colbert said, and has settled on elements that seem to best meet the needs of the families. These include frequent family activities that invite new social connections and having a licensed family counselor, a parent navigator, and a certified parent coach on staff.
“Having a faith community in the same building as our early childhood center builds in tremendous opportunities to support our program at Open Arms,” Colbert said. “We have volunteer readers, baby rockers, bib and cot sheet sewers, programs for parents like Celebrate Recovery, craft classes, and a licensed counselor who is available to parents at no cost. Taking the babies for a ride around the facility is a social event in itself as babies see not only the artwork and displays of 207 children but also the staff and faith community members at the church.”
Strengthening Families first came north in 2005 when Alaska was picked to be one of seven pilot states, with the Office of Children’s Services, Department of Health and Social Services, as lead agency. Alaska’s program includes grants to early care and education programs, training of child care professionals, and incorporating the protective factors framework in higher education curricula and training.
Non-governmental agencies are also engaged in Strengthening Families. The Alaska Children’s Trust has awarded grants and United Way of Anchorage has 10 pilot sites in Anchorage, funded by United Way of America.
“This isn’t just another program with measures and rules,” BBNA’s Hoseth explains. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate this framework into our normal routines and weekly plans so that helping families develop these protective factors is just part and parcel of what we do and how we think.”