Stephany Hoover gathers together some of the young girls at the Byck Family Resource Center, which provides a variety of services to area residents.
It was my third day as coordinator of the Byck Family Resource Center at Dann C. Byck Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky. The "center" was just me and a chair in the school's office. So far I'd done little but answer the phone.
A pregnant woman walked in with one small child in her arms and another clinging to her leg. The mother held a brown bill -- a notice from the utility company that her power was going to be cut off. She said she'd just come from the hospital. The child clutching her leg had recently had a tumor removed from his eardrum and the doctor had given her a $75 bottle of medicine for him, but it required refrigeration. The mother was in tears over how to chill the medication without electricity.
She was just the first of many parents and students who have come to the Center for help over the past few years. The idea behind centers like ours is that school is the logical place for communities to connect low-income school children and their parents with the health and social services they need to deal with the many ills affecting them -- homelessness, hunger, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, and violence. After teaching first and second grades at Byck for seven years, I knew that such problems prevented many kids from learning. No matter how creative my fellow teachers and I were, we found that by the time our students entered kindergarten, we were literally five years too late to help them.
Our Center was made possible by the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, which provided for full-service family resource centers to be established in or near elementary schools where at least 20 percent of the student population is eligible for free school meals. Byck qualified handily, because 92 percent of our students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Our community is typical of many inner city neighborhoods: 79 percent of families in our census tract make do with incomes below the federally defined poverty level, 71 percent are headed by women, and 60 percent of adults lack a high school diploma.
Our school staff was eager to establish a family resource center and applied for state funding as soon as it was available. Our proposal was accepted in July of 1991, and the principal hired me to lead the program.
The Byck Family Resource Center helps people with basic needs. We maintain a food pantry for hungry families and a clothes closet filled with underwear, socks, shoes, and other apparel for kids who do not have enough clothes to keep clean for a week or who have "accidents" while at school. We have a licensed after school and summer childcare program, and we train local childcare providers to meet state-licensing requirements.
Among the many other services we offer is The Cradle School, which prepares children from birth to age four for kindergarten. The children participate in early childhood education classes and their parents learn about subjects such as health, nutrition, and child development. Another program, Families in Training, gives new and expectant parents information about prenatal and postnatal care through classes and home visits. The Center also coordinates health services for children and adults -- immunizations, physicals, hearing and vision screening, and mental health counseling can be obtained on-site or by referral to a neighborhood clinic.
Since social and recreational opportunities for children and parents are almost nonexistent in our community, that's another area we address. One night a week we baby-sit the kids so a group of moms (The Tuesday Night Tootsies) and dads (The Tootsie Pops) can do whatever they want at the school -- play volleyball, hold baby showers, sing, make crafts. We arrange special events, such as an evening in the computer lab, during which parents can learn about keyboarding, word processing, and working with graphics. At another time, parents and students might get together to use the Center's laptops to compose stories and create Christmas cards. This access to technology, as limited as it is, gives even the poorest parents the chance to develop computer literacy skills.
The secret to making the Center work is our close partnerships with other community organizations. I'm in constant contact with government agencies, service organizations, churches, social service providers, charities, businesses, and others -- all of whom come together to help individuals when they need it, rather than bog them down in the bureaucracy.
The woman who came to me for help with her utility bill was the first to benefit from this partnership. I immediately called the local gas and electric company and determined how much money they'd accept to leave her power on. Then I gave her the phone numbers of community agencies that would help her pay the bill. I was tempted to make the calls myself, but decided that the Center would serve parents better by empowering them to solve their own problems.
Later the same day, the woman called after arranging to keep her utility service. She was sobbing with joy. She told her story to everyone she knew and people started showing up for help, first in a trickle, then a flood. That's okay, though. I know how to swim.
This work is often heartbreaking. I sometimes find myself crying along with the families I try to help. But mostly I get great satisfaction from it. The reward isn't a plaque on the wall, but something more personal. My parents died about eight months apart a couple of years ago. During both of their funerals at my church, I looked behind me and saw pews filled with parents, children, and babies from the Center. They had come all the way across town to be with me, to support me and to cry with me. They helped me in all the ways my job description says I should help them. They are some of the most beautiful people I've ever known in my life.