Our clients are the core of Family Outreach of Amherst (FOA). We hope to help you understand the work we do by sharing the stories of twelve different clients over the course of the year in the form of our email newsletter. If you do not currently receive our monthly newsletter but would like to, email “Add me to newsletter” to Office Manager, Rachel Condry, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each story will highlight a different aspect of the work we do. We hope you will see just how invaluable your support is in making our services available to fragile families in the Amherst area. We will be updating this page after newsletters are sent each month. Please follow along!
August: Helping a Family Through a Difficult Diagnosis
When a parent struggles with a medical condition, it can be overwhelming and confusing for any family. If you have few resources, English isn’t your first language, and you have low-literacy skills in any language, negotiating the medical world can feel like an insurmountable hurdle. For one of our clients (we’ll call her Sofia), she faced such a hurdle.
Sofia started working with Francine Rodriguez, FOA’s Program Manager, shortly after arriving in this country. Francine helped Sofia find housing, work toward citizenship, and find employment. Through the years, Francine coached Sofia on both parenting and relationship issues. As time went on Sofia became very self-sufficient but would call Francine if she needed advice.
One day Sofia called Francine asking her to go to the doctors with her. She hadn’t been feeling well and had undergone some tests, but when the doctor told her what the diagnosis was, Sofia didn’t understand. Francine accompanied Sofia to her next appointment so she could help explain and together they met with the doctor who told them the news … Sofia had ovarian cancer.
Over the course of the next six months Francine brought Sofia to treatment appointments, helped her find care for her children when she was too ill to care for them, and helped her access benefits during the time she couldn’t work. Francine translated complicated medical information and helped Sofia make decisions about treatment. At each step of Sofia’s treatment Francine didn’t simply translate and do things for Sofia, she taught Sofia how to advocate for herself and ask questions. The coaching helped empower Sofia to make informed choices about treatment and helped her feel more in control of her medical care.
When Sofia finished treatment, she thought she was done. The concept of follow-up appointments and monitoring was difficult for her to understand. She wanted it to be over. Francine explained the need for on-going screenings and convinced Sofia to continue her doctor visits.
Today Sofia is cancer-free. She goes to follow-up appointments regularly and continues to be healthy. She is back to work and her children are doing well. Francine continues to help her when something comes up, but most of the time Sofia attends doctor visits on her own; she has become her own best advocate.
July: Sometimes it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon
For many of the people FOA works with, some of the most common milestones of our lives can seem like an insurmountable task. A good example of this is the story of a young mother who FOA has been working with for a number of years. This mother (we’ll call her Clara) has tried to obtain her driver’s permit, but because of PTSD, anxiety, and perhaps an undiagnosed learning disability, Clara has taken the permit test seven times and each time has failed. Even after going to driving school, the written test continued to be a hurdle she couldn’t overcome.
Clara is a wonderful mother to four great kids. She is always looking for ways to move out of poverty and is determined to give her children a better life than the one she had growing up in the projects of New York city. Her mother died when she was a young teen and she lived with a series of relatives, some abusive, until she moved to Amherst when she was 19. Her oldest son’s father was killed in a car accident leaving Clara alone to support their child. Yet, through all the loss and trauma Clara has faced, her indomitable spirit has endured.
Over the years Clara has worked with many members of the FOA staff on many different issues. Having no family, few friends, and not many resources, FOA staff has become Clara’s support system. Through the years all the FOA staff have helped Clara study for her driver’s permit test and three different staff members have gone with her when she has taken the test. The experience has been wrenching, each time a hopeful Clara has taken the test and each time FOA staff has driven a heartbroken Clara home where she has had to tell her children that she failed again.
Last week Clara took the test for the eighth time. The quest for her driver’s permit became a symbol to her of how so many things in her life have held her back, but she has kept trying, over and over, to move forward. But when Clara’s name was called at the registry to come up to the counter and get her results, she was sure she had failed again. As she rose from her chair to take the long walk to the counter, she turned to FOA program manager Francine Rodriguez and said, “If I failed, I’m not trying again”; she had reached her limit, she was out of hope.
When the officer handed her a piece of paper and said “That will be twenty-five dollars”, she couldn’t believe it, she had passed! Clara started jumping for joy and screaming, causing the RMV staff and security guards to smile and clap in applause. Francine started crying and the two cherished this special moment together … success at last!
The permit wasn’t just a piece of paper allowing Clara to take her driving test (she will do much better behind the wheel); it was evidence that with enough perseverance and heart, she can accomplish anything. The celebration continued into the FOA office later that day, where Clara had the opportunity to share her success story with another FOA client (we’ll call her Sarah). Sarah was happy for Clara, but Clara’s success reminded Sarah of her own insecurities. She told Clara, “I’m 38 and still don’t have my permit, I’m too afraid to take the test”. Clara energetically replied, “I’ll help you, you can pass!”, and they agreed to meet together at the FOA office later this month so Clara can help Sarah (and maybe others!) study for the test.
For most people obtaining a driver’s permit feels like a menial accomplishment, but to Clara, it meant more than most of us can comprehend. FOA staff have seen and talked to Clara a few times since her test and she is still glowing as much as she did the day she passed. FOA is proud to stand by hardworking and determined people like Clara who, despite the odds against them, continue to persevere and build better lives for themselves and their families. It was a privilege for FOA to run through this long and challenging marathon with Clara; we are now enthralled to see where the next part of her journey will take her and the influence her success will have on others.
May: One Family’s Journey of Overcoming the Effects of Violence, Trauma, and the Threat of Deportation
Family Outreach of Amherst works with families who each have a unique story. Some grew up here in Amherst, some moved here from one of the surrounding cities seeking a better life for their children, and some came to Amherst from another country, fleeing violence and oppression.
Eduardo came to Amherst from El Salvador. His brother was in one of the many gangs that rule El Salvador and, because Eduardo wouldn’t join the gang, they kidnapped Eduardo’s wife and son. Eduardo came home to find his two younger children, a son and daughter hiding in a closet having escaped the gang members. Later that day he was visited by the police who told him they found his wife and older son in a field, murdered. After the police left his home, Eduardo got a call … his two younger children were next.
Eduardo threw some clothes in a bag, grabbed his two surviving children and headed for the border. He slowly made his way to Mexico. From there, he entered the U.S. asking for refugee status since he would be killed if he returned to El Salvador. He and his children were held in a detention center for a week and then were allowed to travel to Amherst where Eduardo had a cousin who lived here.
When Eduardo and his children arrived in Amherst they had nothing but a few articles of clothing. The children were traumatized from both the murder of their mother and brother and hiding for hours thinking they would be discovered at any moment. They did not speak English and, because in El Salvador you have to pay to go to school and they were poor, they had had very little education and were illiterate in their own language. In addition, they were living in a home that was already overcrowded and while the cousin wanted to help, his landlord told him that Eduardo and his kids needed to leave or he was going to evict the cousin and his family. The cousin had to ask Eduardo to leave. Eduardo was about to become homeless with two traumatized children and had nowhere to turn. Then he met Francine Rodriguez from FOA.
Francine helped Eduardo find a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant and when he had saved some money, helped him find a small one bedroom apartment in North Amherst. It was crowded with the three of them, but they were safe and loved it. As time went on Eduardo was promoted to a cook position at the restaurant. With the increase in pay the family eventually moved into a 2 bedroom. The kids each got a bedroom and Eduardo slept in the living room. It felt like a palace to them!
As the children got older and they felt safe in their new home, they started to experience the effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Eduardo was also experiencing PTSD and had begun to drink heavily. Because Francine had built a strong relationship with Eduardo she was able to point out to him that he was suffering as well as his children. Francine made a referral to therapists for the family and helped them get to their appointments. The children also experienced difficulty in school. While they had learned English quite easily, they were still significantly behind their peers in their studies. Francine went with Eduardo to teachers’ conferences and helped him find tutors for them both. As time went on and they became teenagers, there were the typical clashes between adolescents and their parents. Given Eduardo’s own violent and chaotic childhood, he was ill prepared to understand and deal with his children as they assimilated into American culture. Francine became a weekly sounding board for both Eduardo and the kids. She met with them regularly and helped them communicate with each other.
Just as things were going well for everyone, Eduardo received a letter. He had not kept up with his immigration paperwork and he was being deported. This was devastating for the family. If they were sent back to El Salvador they would be in grave danger. Francine helped Eduardo file the proper papers to request a hearing and found a social justice group in Boston who would help Eduardo with his case. Francine went with Eduardo to Boston for his hearing and was there when he was granted permanent resident refugee status. Later that week FOA received a letter from the Boston organization praising Francine’s work with Eduardo’s family, saying they believed he was granted permanent status because of the work Francine had done to help Eduardo.
Today the family is doing well. Both of the children are in healthy relationships and have jobs that support their families. Eduardo still lives alone, never having recovered from the loss of his wife. He still calls Francine from time to time, either when he needs help with some paperwork or to just let her know that everyone is still happy and safe.
March: One Family’s Success Story: From Crisis to Stabilization to Thriving
FOA’s Strive to Thrive (STT) is a program that works with low-income young adults and/or parents of all ages in Amherst and the surrounding towns. STT supports participants achieve greater self-sufficiency and stability for themselves and their families. Caseworkers work with participants on an ongoing basis to ensure they have the support and resources they need to accomplish their goals. These goals can be geared towards employment, education, community engagement, accessing community resources and benefits, developing life skills, budgeting, and more.
When a family contacts the STT program they often need help resolving an issue that they are struggling with, such as a housing problem, a utility shut-off notice, or a medical or mental health crisis. The STT caseworker meets with the participant and together they create a plan to resolve the presenting issue. After the crisis is resolved, the STT staff then explores with the family strategies to pursue their goals to further stabilize their lives.
Erica and Brendon are a good example of how we work with a family from crisis to stabilization. When Erica first called FOA, Strive to Thrive Manager Rachel Condry said she was crying so hard Rachel could hardly understand her. Erica had just received an eviction notice that morning and was terribly afraid her family was about to become homeless. Her husband Brendon had lost his job the month before and they had gotten behind on their rent. In addition, her two-year-old son Tony had an earache and, because their car had broken down the week before, Erica didn’t know how she was going to get him to his doctor’s appointment that afternoon. Luckily, Rachel was free and able to take Erica and Tony to the doctor’s visit. While they sat in the doctor’s office waiting room they were able to talk more and get to know each other. Erica had been a foster child most of her childhood and had bounced from home to home for years. She was devastated that she might lose the only place that had ever felt like home and was worried that her daughter, who was in third grade, would have to change schools. Once the doctor’s visit was over and they had picked up medicine for Tony, they made an appointment to meet the next day with Brendon.
At the meeting Rachel helped Erica and Brendon apply for emergency funds so they could pay their rental arrears and avoid eviction. She helped Brendon write a resume and apply for jobs online. Erica wanted to start looking for a job as well but she didn’t have her high school diploma, so Rachel helped her find a HiSet class (formerly known as GED) that she could attend while Brendon’s mother watched Tony. They had a small amount of income and Rachel helped them create a budget so they could save up to have their car repaired. A week later Brendon got a call to come in for a job interview, so he met with Rachel the day before the interview and practiced his interview skills. He got the job and when he was told he needed to purchase special steel toed boots for the job, Rachel was able to help him purchase the boots through our Friends of Family Outreach program.
Today, Erica is still working toward her HiSet. Tony now attends Headstart half days and because he had some difficulties with speech, Rachel made a referral to the Reach program where he is receiving services to resolve the problem. Brendon was recently promoted at work and the family is stable and happy. When an issue arises Erica and Brendon know they can call Rachel and she will always be available to help. This on-going support ensures that while they may struggle with an issue from time to time, they will not cycle back into crisis and their family will remain stable.
February: Isobel’s Story: Being Understood Made all the Difference
One of the unique aspects of Family Outreach of Amherst (FOA) is that all our caseworkers can speak Spanish. This allows us to converse easily with our Spanish-speaking clients and lets them explain their situation in their own language. People whose first language is not English often have to simplify their problem because they don’t have a large enough English vocabulary to fully explain all of the nuanced details of an issue. When they are able to explain their problem in their native language, they can talk in a much more detailed and sophisticated way. This leads to a better understanding between the caseworker and client, allowing the caseworker to provide better service to the family. Our client Isobel is a good example of how our ability to speak and understand her language has made all the difference.
Isobel grew up in Puerto Rico and lived there with her mother until she moved to Amherst when she was 16. Her mother became very ill and could no longer take care of Isobel and her three younger brothers. Within a year of her move to Amherst, Isobel’s mother passed away and, because she didn’t get along with her aunt, Isobel moved out to live with her boyfriend. Isobel could not speak English and her boyfriend was extremely controlling. He wouldn’t allow her to take English classes or work, making her completely dependent on him for everything. Her boyfriend began to drink heavily and whenever Isobel did anything that angered him he would beat her. When Isobel learned she was pregnant, she feared for her baby’s safety and knew she had to get away from her abuser.
Isobel had a neighbor who knew something was wrong and had tried to talk to Isobel in the past, but because of the language barrier Isobel couldn’t tell her about the abuse. One day when Isobel’s boyfriend was at work, her neighbor drove her to Family Outreach of Amherst and explained to a FOA caseworker that she knew something was wrong but she wasn’t sure what it was. The caseworker met with Isobel privately and Isobel was able to tell the caseworker about the abuse. The caseworker explained Isobel’s options to her and, after many questions and discussions, Isobel decided to apply for a restraining order. The FOA caseworker went with her to the courthouse and helped her obtain the order, explaining the process to her along the way.
When Amherst police officers served Isobel’s boyfriend with the order, he became violent and was arrested. As soon as he was released from jail he left the state. While this meant Isobel was safe, it also meant she was left with an apartment she couldn’t afford, no income for food nor other necessities, three months pregnant, and unable to speak much English. This situation could have been a disaster for Isobel but luckily she was working with a FOA caseworker. The caseworker helped her obtain emergency benefits so she could pay the rent and buy food. Isobel enrolled in English classes and, after her baby was born, the caseworker helped her enter a training program to become a nurse’s aide. The caseworker then helped Isobel find childcare for her baby and supported her as she looked for a job.
Today Isobel and her child are doing well, and are free from abuse. She still calls the FOA caseworker when she needs help and sometimes they speak in Spanish but more and more often, Isobel wants to practice her English!
January: Meet Barbara
For many of our clients, the holidays can be a very stressful time. Our client Barbara is a good example. Having been raised in a series of foster homes, Barbara never really felt she belonged. She remembers her foster family singing songs and opening presents while she sat and watched them. She received presents as well but she never felt part of her foster family’s rituals. One particularly painful Christmas, the foster family traveled across the country to visit family and Barbara had to stay in a group home while they were gone. To make matters worse, Barbara’s mother struggled with drugs and often disappointed her during the holidays by not showing up for scheduled visits. Because of this, Barbara’s memories of Christmas are of exclusion, disappointment, and abandonment.
Once Barbara had children of her own she wanted to create a better holiday atmosphere for them. But with no healthy family members around and very little income, Barbara was often extremely anxious and depressed during the holiday season. To add to the stress, the busy holiday season means more hours at her fast food restaurant job. While the additional income is much needed and welcome, the longer hours away from home means that her children are by themselves during the evenings, continuing the cycle of loneliness Barbara often felt as a child.
The good news is there are many ways Family Outreach of Amherst and their partners help families like Barbara’s. The FOA caseworkers help families sign up for the Hampshire Gazette gift fund, work with the Grace Episcopal Church Amherst, local businesses and individuals to “adopt” families for Christmas and collaborate with the Rotary Club of Amherst who throws an amazing holiday party for 40 children whose parents work with FOA every year.
One of the reasons Barbara took the extra hours at work was to be able pay for Christmas presents. By attending the Rotary Club Christmas party, Barbara and her children were able to celebrate the holidays and receive Christmas gifts which meant Barbara didn’t feel so much pressure to pick up extra shifts at work and leave her children alone. A FOA caseworker worked with Barbara to create a budget so she wouldn’t over-spend at Christmas and get behind on her bills. With the help of FOA, Barbara and her children are now able to celebrate the holidays stress-free, creating happy holiday memories.