Saturday, September 24, 2022

Virginia Cooperative Extension Works to Strengthen Families in the Community

The Virginia Cooperative Extension Family Focus program provides support and education to families in the community with babies and young children. (Courtesy of Virginia Cooperative Extension, FCS Family Focus)

WILLIAMSBURG — When people hear the term, “family resource program”, they do not often have an immediate understanding of what that means, according to Bernadette “Bee” Darrow, site coordinator and parent educator of Virginia Cooperative Extension, FCS Family Focus Program.

Darrow likes to compare the program’s services to a library. Open to the community, the program offers a space for community members to connect, as well as provides educational services, resources and referral information.

A partnership of land grant universities Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local governments, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) offers educational services to the community in a variety of ways.

One of these ways is through Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS), which works with families with young children, such as babies, toddlers and preschoolers, and connects with other agencies like Child Development Resources (CDR), Ace and Early Head Start.

The early childhood educators, called Parenting Educators, offer groups and classes to parents or caregivers and their children.

“Our niche is supporting and strengthening families,” Darrow said.

VCE FCS Family Focus services promote the Common Protective Factors, Darrow said, which includes nurturing and attachment, parental resilience and social connections.

The program, which operates about 40 weeks throughout the year, reaches families through word-of-mouth.

“People who have used the program in the past spread the word,” Darrow said.

The program is housed in local churches at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 7479 Richmond Rd., in James City County and St. Mark Lutheran Church, 118 Old York-Hampton Hwy, in Yorktown.

The program also reaches families through “targeted services,”

“We reach out to families who may be receiving other services elsewhere and are in need of additional support, like parenting education and early childhood education,” Darrow said. “The targeted services population would include families with low income or families with children with special needs.”

The Family Focus program has offered these services to the community for the past 38 years, and has been with VCE for the past 11.

While the program experienced total funding loss under a different governing body in 2009, it was able to raise funds and become a VCE program.

History seemed to repeat itself when the pandemic hit, Darrow said.

“Because we work with babies, toddlers and preschoolers, it was a real effort to figure out what we could do during the pandemic,” she said.

For the past 20 months, Family Focus has been unable to hold in-person Playgroups, which is typically its most well-attended program.

“We typically, in a years time, serve a good 200 families through Playgroup,” Darrow said. “There’s so much during play that children learn. How to calm down, how to share, how to wait a turn, those basic social and emotional competence skills.”

Site Coordinator and Parent Educator Sheree Press, said that the program held virtual play groups throughout the pandemic.

“Bee and I would sing and do a 30-minute circle time with the kids and read a story to them,” Press said.

“Each and every month throughout the pandemic, we also did meet-ups in parking lots and playgrounds,” Darrow added. “We were like, ‘How in the world are we going to serve these families and not be in-person?’ So we managed and thank goodness it was well-received.”

In the new year, the program will reopen its Playgroup in a series of groups and classes that parents will need to register for.

“We do have two populations that we’re really craving,” Darrow said. “Families with new babies, including first-time parents, and also families that need to meet their basic needs.”

Press said that the program will also help families with transportation complications to get to the classes, whether it is giving them bus tickets or calling them cabs.

“We will make every effort we can to get them here, so there’s no barriers,” Press said.

Press and Darrow said that they are looking forward to continuing to help children gain life skills and learn social and emotional competence.

“One other thing we’re going to be doing too is going out into the community,” Press said. “If there’s a low-income neighborhood that can’t come, we’re going to bring the Playgroup to them.”

For more information about VCE Family Focus, visit its Facebook page.

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