Guest columnist Michele Miller: Family Outreach of Amherst enters its 30th year

  • FaIris Rosa, a caseworker for Family Outreach of Amherst, brings food and supplies to clients.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Francine Rodriquez, program manager at Family Outreach of Amherst, wasn’t surprised when the call came from one of her clients with news that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

An essential worker in a local nursing home, she started to feel mild symptoms before being sent to Cooley Dickinson Hospital to be tested. Rodriguez could hear the worry in her client’s voice — a single mother of three — her diagnosis compounded by a housing issue the client would be unable to resolve from isolation. Rodriguez, a 15-year human services veteran, did what she always does first — assure her client she was not alone.

Family Outreach, a program of the Center for Human Development, is celebrating 30 years serving the Valley and the need is greater than ever. For community members in Amherst and surrounding areas, FOA provides one-on-one support, for as long as they need the help. Over the years FOA has helped thousands of families with matters ranging from immigration, housing and employment to mental health, parenting, and substance abuse. FOA understands there is a spectrum of challenges a family can face and that even the smallest one can lead to a domino effect, if neglected.

The demand for FOA services is high, with an annual caseload of 650 families for three full-time caseworkers. But with the current circumstances, the organization anticipates a greater need from their current families and a surge of new referrals. In a three-week span this month, they’ve received close to a dozen new cases and anticipate that this trend will continue.

“We are busy now, but when the state opens back up and the forbearance periods end, landlords and utility companies are going to be looking for their money. That’s when we are going to get really busy,” Rodriquez said.

Post-quarantine fallout is not something any of us can escape, but for FOA clients and other community members at risk, the consequences can be devastating.

“Behind every door in this community, there is a struggle. For our clients, this could mean becoming homeless, relapsing from substance dependency, or having a child that falls seriously behind in their academics,” said Iris Rosa, FOA caseworker.

Like most organizations, FOA has pivoted from face-to-face meetings, which can happen at a client’s kitchen table, a doctor’s appointment, housing or family court, or a parent-teacher conference, to remotely working with clients.

“To help them stretch their budgets and offer a sense of community during this period of isolation, one case worker recently taught a group of moms on Facetime how to make big batches of soups and freeze them,” Executive Director Laura Reichsman said. 

Another case worker helped a Spanish speaking client obtain her driver’s license for the first time, after waiting nearly six months for her immigration documentation to arrive. The Department of Motor Vehicles was going to require her to repeat the process and did not have a Spanish speaking staff member to assist her. The FOA case worker was able to provide translation services over the phone and she successfully obtained her license.

“We used a lot of emojis to celebrate,” said Rodriguez.

FOA focuses on developing and empowering its clients.  Starting with the belief that people can change, FOA works with their clients to gain skills and attitudes that help them, over time, advocate for themselves. Promoting agency empowers clients and acts as an antidote to continuing the cycle.

“We understand that they are, in fact, the experts in their own lives, and that we can help. But they get to dictate how they receive that help and what they do with it. It’s not up to us to decide,” Reichsman said.

Many Amherst residents don’t realize how many families struggle to feed their children. In fact, 50% of the school children in Amherst are eligible for free or reduced cost lunch.

“It’s so important that our community understands what we are doing and, mostly, why we are doing it. Many people don’t know, for example, that poverty exists in Amherst, or that there are people, unseen, struggling terribly. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving in our community,” said Katherine Appy, an advisory board member.

Like many human services organizations, FOA’s work happens one family at a time and depends on the community to support its mission and programs. Its biggest fundraising event of the year, Light Up the Night! – which covers the cost of one full-time case worker with benefits and has netted over $750,000 for the organization over the years — has been canceled this year due to the global pandemic.

“Losing our biggest fundraising event of the year is a significant loss for FOA and the hundreds of community supporters, businesses and volunteers that make it happen. We will miss the camaraderie and spirit of an event that has helped so many for the past 16 years, and we are extremely grateful for the support of our donors,” said Betsy McInnis, longtime Advisory member.

Family Outreach of Amherst is honored to serve the community and would love your support. If you are interested in getting involved or learning more, visit chd.org/familyoutreach. You can also email familyoutreach@chd.org to be added to the Friends of FOA list, a network that responds, on demand, to essential needs of community members throughout the year.

Michele Miller is on the board of Family Outreach of Amherst and lives in Amherst with her two children.