Improving the quality of life for children begins with knowing each child’s name and having a relationship with each one, says Freda Gandy, the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center.
Having fathers involved in their children’s lives is also important. So Darnell Griffen, who takes over Gandy’s previous role as director of children’s services, will bring a greater emphasis on nurturing fathers.
From her 11 years of work at the center, beginning as a volunteer parent when her son Demarciee was in the ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program) preschool, Gandy has seen how the center’s programs have impacted children she has followed from preschool into their teen years.
“I see parents who have been able to sustain jobs because of our help,” she says. “We help break down barriers and provide support through the years.”
The community social service center, at 845 S. Sherman St. in Spokane’s ethnically diverse East Central neighborhood, seeks to live King’s legacy of “paving the way for a more equitable future by encouraging families to take responsibility for their success, preparing children to succeed in school and life, providing leadership opportunities for youth, celebrating cultural diversity and fostering community connections.”
Gandy, who moved to Spokane from Mississippi to study developmental psychology at Eastern Washington University, began working as a substitute teacher and then as a kindergarten teacher at the center after graduating in 1995. She became family services coordinator and then director of children’s services.
She knows the stresses of working with children and families who may experience trauma because of struggles with limited incomes, relationships, school, work and life.
“I also know the role the center played in my life,” Gandy says. “I’m thrilled to help families like me, many single parents, juggling school, work and life pressures.”
To help prevent her 16 culturally and ethnically diverse staff members from burning out as the need for services continues to rise, she will provide training to support their professional career development.
“We are dealing with the economic crisis and looking for funding as we prepare to celebrate 40 years of serving the community in 2011,” says Gandy.
“Our waiting lists are growing. More people need our services,” she says. “It’s hard to turn a child away.
“The economy means we see families we would not normally see because they are unemployed and need help with rent. We could help more if we had more funding. Government funding is down, so we had to drop one ECEAP slot.”
The ECEAP preschool has space for 35 children, and before- and after-school programs serve 25.
Last year, the center provided 425 backpacks with school supplies and expects to provide 600 this year to meet the need.
The center provides resources for neighborhood families, nurturing them through education and home visits. In addition to the children’s programs, it offers support services, help with rent and utilities, and classes on parenting, budgeting, credit and more.
Programs encourage children to stay in school, prepare for college, gain job skills and contribute to the community.
Gandy, who attends Holy Temple Church of God in Christ, is committed to the center’s mission of providing equal respect, treatment and accessibility through culturally responsive education, enrichment and family services.
She has the support of her pastor, the Rev. Ezra Kinlow, plus the Rev. Happy Watkins of New Hope Baptist Church and the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“They remind me I can rely on my faith to see the center through difficult times,” Gandy says.
When she began as permanent director last October, she continued to do the work of director of children’s services until August, when she hired Griffen.
Griffen will start a 12-week course beginning in October to help fathers explore their childhoods and learn what they want to throw away, pass on and add to their experiences.
“It’s one more way we can help families set and meet goals so they can stand on their own two feet,” says Gandy.
Griffen grew up in a low-income family in South Seattle and attended a Headstart preschool. After graduating from high school he studied at ITT Technical Institute and worked for Hewlett Packard before beginning at Spokane Community College in 1999.
After earning an associate degree in liberal arts, he transferred to Eastern Washington University to study business and marketing.
In a class on social problems, the teacher asked, “Are you here to earn money or to make a difference?” That question motivated Griffen to shift to social work, completing a bachelor’s degree in 2007 and a master’s in 2009.
While studying, he worked with the YMCA, Spokane Mental Health and the Spokane Child Abuse Network.
“I became interested in developing a training program to nurture fathers, because they are key in preserving families, which affects lives and generations,” Griffen says.
His goal is to provide an environment for children to learn and grow in a framework that includes parent involvement.
“From my childhood, I know about low-income parents without experience rearing children in difficult neighborhoods,” he says. “It’s common for fathers to be frustrated, but they need to learn how to deal with their feelings and how to nurture skills they did not learn as children.”
He believes that “fathers want to be good fathers, but it’s hard for them to admit they need parenting skills. Many grew up in difficult homes.”
Fathers who are involved are more likely to want to hold a job to support their families, Griffen says, and think of their children first
“That strengthens family relationships,” he says, noting that when he has taught similar classes, “mothers expressed gratitude and children have said their fathers hugged them more and were more patient.”
Griffen and Gandy say the challenge now facing the center is its need to grow.
The program started at Grant Elementary School, then met at Liberty Park Terrace and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church before moving into a remodeled former firehouse in 1984.
Its $1-a-year rent from the city makes money available to conduct programs and pay staff a livable wage with benefits.
As the center expanded, it moved administrative offices into a neighboring house. In coming years, the center’s board will be assessing building needs to meet the growth.
“We need funds to provide programs,” Gandy says. “We put people first, because we know what it means in people’s lives if services are cut.”