I’m making a pasta dinner, would you like me to drop it off tomorrow evening or the next?
A text like this is a life preserver tossed to Erin Lareau, biological mom of two and foster mom to two, who’s treading waters of homeschooling, all kinds of appointments, and her husband’s recent deployment.
“There’s lots of activity in our house,” says Lareau. “I would say we’re really good at doing loud; really good at doing a lot of energy almost all of the time.”
Lareau receives help from a volunteer with Families Together, a program that vets, trains, and matches “Neighbors” to help self-identified overwhelmed families. Neighbors provide simple forms of support like monthly meals and check-in calls or cards.
Opening a delivery from their Neighbor, Lareau and her kids are delighted to find a meal and often some simple crafts for the children to work on independently. Thoughtfulness, directness, and reliability impress Lareau each time she interacts with her Neighbor. There’s no ambiguity about the help, no “Let me know how I can help.” or “What day and time works best for you?” And there’s consistently something special for her included, such as a Mother’s Day card and chocolate.
“She’s gone above and beyond,” says Lareau about her Neighbor. “It’s been a really sweet support to me. It’s more of a support to me than the kiddos.”
That’s in the program’s design, according to Ned Breslin, president and CEO of Tennyson Center for Children, and a Families Together volunteer. He and his wife support a family for date night once a month so the parents “can reground and find themselves in their own relationship.”
Families Together resulted from a recent partnership between Tennyson Center, a residential and in-home treatment/service center for kids facing critical circumstances, and Foster Together, a family support and stabilization network. Community-based programs were part of Tennyson Center’s offerings originally, Breslin explains, but folding in Foster Together to create Families Together meant they could offer much more to both organizations’ families.
“All the families in the community we work with feel extremely isolated; they feel judged, they feel marginalized,” he adds. When a kid’s trauma manifests in escalating negative behavior, they can get kicked out of churches, sports teams, school, and other groups. “Their ecosystem keeps shrinking, and what Foster Together does is allow it to expand again.”
Families Together’s mission extends to kinship families, biological, foster, adoptive, and reunified families. Hope Forti, Foster Together’s founder, leads the group.
“We are a better organization because of Hope and her team,” says Breslin, who feels the partnership was timed fortuitously, even in the tumult of COVID-19. “This is actually a time to aggressively go align and collaborate for the good of families. Families are benefitting even in a time of uncertainty and perceived and real scarcity.”
Forti, director of Families Together, agrees. She’s glad to connect families to Tennyson Center’s community-based therapy clinicians and family support specialists. Those professionals are also reviewing the Families Together’s Neighbor training so the service better promotes a family’s healing process.
Forti notes parents might have trauma around asking for or getting what they need; Neighbors’ efforts might address that. Volunteer training stresses the importance of starting small, and naturally growing trust and assistance from there. It’s not helpful to swoop in, expecting to be a kid’s mentor and save the day, says Forti.
“What we want to do is recenter the family because the healing power is in the home. If we can put a little more room to breathe in the caregiver’s life, we think they can do a better job being the hero, or the attachment, for the kid.”
When multiple kids need to be shuttled to various school districts and afternoons are filled with doctor appointments, therapy sessions, and bio parent visits, a ready-made meal is a blessing. When kids are struggling with online learning, it’s nice to receive a game to play and a reassuring phone call. When a traumatized child acts up in school and requires perpetual intervention, a trauma-informed volunteer’s encouragement might help focus on the big picture.
An effective compliment neighbors can give, says Forti, goes something like: “Thank you for loving them, because it’s worth it, and they’re worth it. Here’s a lasagna because it’s really hard to cook dinner at the end of a day like that.”
A growth area for Families Together, Forti adds, is diverse representation in their volunteer pool. Providing a racial/cultural/ethnic mirror for kids in this way, Forti hopes kids will be able to understand the beauty of their roots — and not in a tokenizing way. For help in this, Families Together seeks to connect with and learn from organizations and leaders in BIPOC communities where collective child rearing and family support may be happening naturally.
Creating Families Together is the first step in a larger vision to integrate friendly, personal family connections into the welfare space. They’ve begun work with Denver County to provide Neighbors to families fostering kids in high risk of bouncing from home to home, and are set up to partner with other nonprofits, therapists, and family-facing organizations. A “Do It Yourself” package is in the works as well, where Families Together would coach and consult advocates around the U.S. to implement their model.
Asking for help, personally, was difficult for Lareau to do. She’d sooner request a last-minute sitter while she took one kid to an appointment, or anything else that revolved around her children, than ask for a meal. Receiving from a Families Together Neighbor helped change that a bit.
“To be seen as a foster mom, and not just because of your kids but as a person… [volunteers] being so purposeful and helpful to the parent is what makes this different,” she says. “You can grow weary, but there’s this foster neighbor who is purposely wanting to support the caregiver. To me that’s really a blessing.”
More resources to help Colorado families
Colorado Crisis Services
If you don’t know where to begin getting help, call 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255. Crisis counselors and professionally trained peer specialists are available to help make a plan. They offer translation in more than 200 languages and can connect folks to mental health, substance use, and emotional crisis services. 1-844-493-8255. coloradocrisisservices.org
A recently-established partnership between AllHealth Network and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), this short-term program will provide free psychological guidance and community support to folks struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Call for individual or group counseling, emotional and stress reduction, coping strategies, help reviewing disaster recovery options, and connection with other agencies. Available until June 27, 2021. 720-707-6789. allhealthnetwork.org/colorado-spirit
Children, adolescents, and their families in need of mental health, substance use, and stabilization services are welcome at Jefferson Hills. An inpatient, hospital alternative program helps kids ages five to 18 who are dangerous to themselves or others. A crisis stabilization unit for youth includes a health and clinical screening for any child or youth with a self-identified crisis. Registered nurses, special education teachers, and social workers armed with trauma-informed care are on hand, and links to community providers for aftercare is available. 303-989-4357. jeffersonhills.org
The Parents as Teachers program via Shiloh House sends trained parent educators on home visits to offer child development screenings and strategies for well being. The support group Circle of Parents, conducted by parents and facilitated by a professional, focuses on building existing family strengths and learning (in English and Spanish) through fellowship. Rapid Response for families in Arapahoe County is available to give care and prevent Department of Human Services intervention. Residential care, educational programming, day treatment, and more are also part of the six-campus organization. 303-695-7996. shilohhouse.org
Denver Indian Family Resource Center
Serving American Indian and Alaska Native families, this group offers intensive case management for folks in the child welfare system, many of whom have felt misunderstood at other agencies, according to their site. DIFRC works with Boulder, Broomfield, Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, and Denver counties and members of over 100 tribes represented in the metro area. Their short term help, especially during the pandemic, involves distributing grocery cards, utility and rent assistance, and job loss support. 720-500-1020. difrc.org
Denver Indian Health and Family Services
Find culturally-appropriate behavioral health, substance use, and integrated health care for the whole family. Therapists in the Integrated Behavioral Health Programming provides private counseling for ages eight and up along with traditional education and healing groups. 303-953-6600. dihfs.org
Families Forward Resource Center
Northeast Denver and north Aurora community members look to Families Forward for a wide variety of support. It offers nutrition and cooking classes, parenting education, and is a hub for connecting to other service providers. The center is also known for aiding Black families in creating healthy environments for their young children through material goods and community. 303-307-0718. familiesforwardco.com
Servicios de la Raza
Since 1972, when it was founded by Chicano activists, this organization has provided culturally-responsive human services to the Latinx community and now folks of all identities. A Behavioral Health Program offers comprehensive mental health and substance use services to underserved and uninsured folks. Basic Emergency Services includes a clothing bank for children, hygiene products, and food distribution (plus delivery when possible), with funding all by donation. The Crisis Counseling Program, a FEMA-funded program to assist recovery from COVID-19 lasting effects, helps folks make sense of their situations, mitigate stress, develop coping strategies, and engage in group or individual counseling. The hotline number is 720-410-7108. General phone line: 303-458-5851 serviciosdelaraza.org
Parent to Parent of Colorado
Parents of a child with disabilities may be overwhelmed by special care needs. This network across Colorado helps families feel less alone in the journey and offers emotional and informational support. Find online support groups in English and Spanish, parent training, and more. 877-472-7201. abilityconnectioncolorado.org/p2p-co/
The Neuropsychiatric Special Care (NSC) Program at Children’s Hospital Colorado
Psychiatrists, psychologists, behavior analysts, clinicians, nurses, occupational therapists, social workers, creative arts therapists, and more help children with special needs through this program at Children’s Hospital. Enjoy individualized, multidisciplinary care here along with family group support and caregiver training to bring interventions into home life. 720-777-6200. childrenscolorado.org