AMHERST – As program manager for CHD’s Family Outreach of Amherst, Francine Rodriguez has embedded with families in all kinds of need, plus the school system, social service agencies of all sizes, and the immigrant wave to hit Amherst over the past two years.
People often find her by word of mouth. Her reputation is well-earned. Her business is solutions.
No matter who walks through the door, or calls her cellphone, or finds her through the large patchwork of people she has helped over the last 14 years, her goal is to help mitigate whichever corrosive effects are blocking their survival. Primarily, the reasons are generational poverty, mental health diagnoses, addiction, language barriers or trauma. Or, some combination of all of those.
“It’s the hardest thing for me to do, to say ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you.’ It’s the thing I hate most in the world,” Rodriguez says.
Clients frequently seek her help, get on their feet and perhaps return years or even a decade later to get assistance sorting out something else. It’s among her favorite parts of the job, in a way. Her client relationships tend to be lasting.
Problem-solving is her most innate talent. Even as an adolescent and then an adult, family members and friends always sought her counsel — which she delivers with a warm, dimpled smile.
“I was always just that person,” she says. “I’ve always liked to brainstorm and figure stuff out.”
On a recent morning, a woman looking for help with emergency housing appears at Rodriguez’s office near the Town Green. The tucked away, small space is welcoming — not Spartan — but efficient since each square foot is used to its full potential. The young woman doesn’t have an appointment, which Rodriguez typically discourages. But still, she does not turn her away.
The woman has spent meager funds on a local, Spanish-speaking freelance cab driver. He is among the fabric of a struggling but resourceful Latino population in Hampshire County, Rodriquez says. At first, she was suspicious of the man, sensing a scam of some sort. But, she has come to trust he charges fair prices and is often willing to translate at social service agencies, or help his fares in other ways. He also is working to make a creative but honest living, Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez and the client have a hurried conversation. She and her colleague at the small agency are possibly the only two social workers in Hampshire County who speak Spanish, she laments. That alone places them in high demand.
Rodriguez is a social worker in the truest sense of the phrase. She helps people organize their lives, she says.
New mothers need infant car seats before their babies can be discharged from hospitals. Families need food, clothing, and furniture or fuel assistance. Children have literally appeared on the agency’s doorstep, shivering, because they don’t own winter coats. Single mothers get eviction notices, some of which they can’t read. Struggling families get visits from the Department of Children and Families. Those cases are particularly difficult, Rodriguez says, because many times the parents are neither abusing nor neglecting their kids.
“Sometimes they just need a little help. They need a little support, or a hand to fix a few things in their lives,” she explains.
Rodriguez came to CHD in 2004 by way of Head Start, a federally-funded early education and health network, where she worked as afamily advocate.
She cannot estimate how many families and singles she has helped over the years. The office usually has a rolling annual caseload of hundreds. Since its budget is small, Family Outreach of Amherst relies heavily on an email list of supporters from across the Pioneer Valley. If Rodriguez and her staff cannot easily put their hands on what a family or adult client needs, they will issue a request to the list: furniture; a crib; a car seat; kids’ shoes, help paying for a child’s art lessons; or clothing for job interviews, for instance.
The response is typically swift, Rodriguez says. She estimates Program Director Laura Reichsman has built up the list to about 450 over the years.
One of Rodriguez’s longtime clients, Kiana Connor, is a mother of four who moved to Amherst 11 years ago. Connor said she had always been fiercely independent, but ran into dire trouble paying her rent about six years ago. She found Rodriguez through middle school administrators.
“At the time, I just didn’t know what to do. She helped me get caught up. Now, she’s like a second mom to me,” Connor said. “I really love her. She’s fabulous.”
Since the two met, Connor has looked to Rodriguez for help at Christmastime and occasionally help with utilities. But, Connor also attends monthly luncheons hosted by the agency and has become something of a community advocate. Connor promotes Rodriguez’s bottom-line philosophy: seek help when you need it, but learn how to help yourself and your family.
“My hope for them is that they gain the knowledge and confidence to become their own advocates,” Rodriguez says.