Connecting Her Community

By Brad McEwen

Although finding adequate program funding is always the biggest obstacle, Lee County Family Connection Director Patsy Shirley admitted to me recently that one of the toughest challenges the nonprofit organization faces is helping people understand what Family Connection is and how it’s making a significant impact on the community.

“I feel like we do get a lot of support,” Patsy said during our hour-plus meeting. “But I think people still have a hard time comprehending what it is we do. That’s why I’ve been out trying to speak to different organizations.”

It was actually at one of these presentations roughly two years ago when I first encountered Patsy, who was sharing her organization’s mission with the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County.

Like many in the audience I knew nothing about the organization—which I’ve learned is part of a state-wide Family Connection network funded by a grant program established by former Georgia Governor Zell Miller—but after 15 or so minutes I had a pretty good understanding of its purpose and more importantly I had little doubt about its effectiveness with Patsy at the helm.

My first impression—that Patsy was a dedicated community servant with a passion for helping others—was only strengthened by subsequent interactions I had with her during my time at the Albany Herald, during which I was always happy to help Patsy spread the word about Lee County Family Connection events.

One of my personal motivations for my willingness to help is that I’ve always tried to support various organizations I believe are doing good work, but I think the main reason I never hesitated to do a write up for her was that her enormous heart for Lee County, and her drive to see it improved, was always evident.

When a co-worker recently suggested I feature Patsy and the work she’s doing with Lee County Family Connection in a story, it was really a no-brainer and my first reaction was that I was ashamed I hadn’t thought of that myself.

In my estimation Patsy Shirley is exactly the type of person we set out to shine a light on when we created Beyond the Bank, as there’s no doubting her motivation to improve her community.

In addition to the work she does with the Kiwanis Club of Lee County, the Lee County Chamber of Commerce and the Lee County Library, Patsy works tirelessly to spread the word about Family Connection and its mission to improve the lives of Lee County children and families, through a variety of activities and programs.

To get a true grasp of Patsy’s mission it’s necessary to also understand the purpose of Lee County Family Connection, as it’s nearly impossible to separate the two since Patsy devotes so much of her time to the organization.

“It’s really about our five focus areas: healthy children; children primed and ready for school; successful when they get there; stable, self-sufficient families; and families who thrive in the community,” Patsy explained. “Every county, we all have our own annual plan. We do local assessments and our collaborative organization, the group that I work with, we focus on what we feel is important in our community.

“You can go to every county in the state and we’re probably all doing something a little bit differently. Some of us share some things that we’re doing, or we have the same issues we’re trying to address, but we do it differently.

“We all have the same vision, our statewide vision, and then everything is decided upon at the local level.

“It’s a good program.”

With those overarching goals in mind, the organization—as its name suggests—connects children and families with needed resources in a multitude of ways, many of which are provided through collaboration with other organizations—collaborations Patsy has worked diligently to build and maintain.

“We are growing,” said Patsy of the organization that was founded in 1999 and of which she’s been the director since 2009. “We’ve added a lot of new programs. And it’s all collaboration. We don’t do anything on our own as far as just Family Connection, especially with a staff of one. Everything thing we do is in collaboration with a partner, sometimes multiple partners, in the community.”

A prime example of those collaborations is Family Connection’s work with the Backpack Blessings program, which is organized by the Lee County Kiwanis Club. Through its connection to that program—which provides nutritious groceries to families in need on a weekly basis—Family Connection is able to then partner with retired teachers on a project to provide children’s books to low income families.

“We have a program we started in 2016 called Books for Kids and our partner is the Lee County Retired Educator Association,” Patsy explained. “We started it as a grassroots program. The purpose is to get books into the homes of low income families with children birth to age 8—for that early literacy, exposing them to what they call ‘language nutrition.’

“We’re the funding source (started with a grant from Sumter EMC), so we get the funds and the retired educators manage the program. What we have done up to now is we’ve partnered with Backpack Blessings, which is a Kiwanis Club project, and the retired educators go to both our primary schools and put a new book in the little backpack blessing bags of all of our K, 1st and 2nd-graders.”

A new offshoot of that program—thanks to another connection—has been to expand the work Family Connection is doing to promote “language nutrition” in an even younger population.

“They added last year, our pre-K book club, because we don’t do backpack blessings in pre-K,” said Patsy. “The pre-K director selected 24 students who are from lower-income families and they meet with them once a month and do a book club. They sit in a little circle and read the book and do an activity and then they all get to take a copy of the book home for their library.

“We also started that with Head Start, which is the 3 and 4 year-olds—the same thing they do at pre-K. So we’re getting books in their hands. I think they’ve distributed over 2,000 books so far. So that’s kind of the collaboration.”

Along those same lines, Patsy said Family Connection is also spearheading a new collaboration with the retired educators, the local Chamber, the Lee County Library and the Lee County School System to promote literacy in families across the community.

That program, which came out of Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal’s “Get Georgia Reading Campaign,” has been dubbed “Literate Lee.”

“The purpose behind it is to get communities—again working on a local level on programs they think would work in their community—focused around literacy birth to age 8,” Patsy explained. “Our Get Georgia Reading team is ‘Literate Lee’ and it’s got five foundation partners.

“We got a $5,000 grant back in the summer from an organization called Literacy for All out of Atlanta and what we’re doing with those funds is, we are doing five programs with our Backpack Blessing families.”

At those programs, Patsy explained, families are invited to come for a “family dinner,” and then engage in activities designed to promote literacy and strengthen the family dynamic within those disadvantaged homes.

“We’re trying to model positive family engagement, so we always start with family dinner,” she said. “Our first event back in July, we did a scavenger hunt at the library. It was black lights and they had to use flashlights to find all the clues. It was really a lot of fun. But, it’s teaching them how to access the library. So they’re learning while they’re having fun.”

In addition to learning and having fun, Patsy said the “Literate Lee” events are also important because they help build trust between the volunteers and the families, who can sometimes be skeptical of people offering assistance.

“We serve the whole family at those programs and it’s been a really good program,” she said. “And it’s the families of the children that are in the schools that we know are receiving Backpack Blessings. So we know they are economically disadvantaged. We’re trying to build trust with these families; that’s our focus right now.”

That notion of strengthening families and improving their circumstances was evident throughout my sit-down with Patsy, as was the intensity she has for seeing that goal achieved.

Whether sharing about programs aimed at younger children and their families, or other programs like Teen Maze and the traffic safety reenactment team programs—which are geared toward middle and high school children and their families respectively—Pasty’s earnest desire to see families nurtured and protected continually shown through, prompting me to ask what led her to Family Connection.

“It’s an interesting story,” Patsy said without hesitation. “I grew up in Sylvester and was the youngest of three children. My parents divorced when I was 18 months old. And my mom, she tried hard but it was difficult. Had it not been for her parents and our immediate relatives I don’t think we would have made it. My dad was not involved emotionally or financially with us at all.

“So, my promise to myself was that the day I got married and started a family I was going to make sure they had more opportunities than I had.”

Patsy is certainly not alone in having grown up in a single-parent home that struggled, but her goal to provide a better life for her children became even more difficult after tragedy struck her burgeoning family.

“After nine and a half years of marriage my twins Courtney and Chelsea were in kindergarten and my youngest, Candace, was in pre-K, my husband decided to end his own life,” she continued. “I had dropped out of college earlier, during those years that you make bad decisions, so here I was 36, three little kids, a mortgage to pay.”

In addition to having to deal with the emotional toll of losing someone so close, Patsy said her biggest challenge was figuring out how to meet her commitment to providing a better life for her children.

She ultimately made the choice to go back to school and said she was only able to do so thanks to the kindness and support of others.

“It was because of my mom and my friends and my neighbors, and even some of the school teachers, that wrapped around us and helped me with my children so I could reach that goal, that we were successful,” she said. “My goal was to make sure my children did not let our circumstance keep them from their vision or their dreams for their education and their careers.”

In an act of divine intervention, Patsy said her life took another important turn after she graduated, first with her undergraduate degree in psychology from Georgia Southwestern and then with her Master’s in Social Work from Valdosta State.

“When I graduated with my Masters, it was in May of 2009 and this job just happened to become available,” she said. “It was like, ‘okay, God put me here for a reason.’”

Not only did the job have a level of flexibility that allowed her to be available for her daughters—themselves involved in a variety of activities including theater and volunteer projects—the Family Connection position also put her in an ideal position to provide assistance to other families in need, just as others had done for her.

“I guess that’s why I’m so passionate about it,” Patsy said of Family Connection. “I really identify with all of our single moms that we work with. I know that the kids have the potential, but sometimes when you’re a single parent you feel like you’re drowning in the world. And not just single parents, we have some where mom and dad are there but they just don’t make enough money. They really struggle.

“You feel like your kids can’t pursue their dreams. And I just want those kids to know they can because there is a way, you know.

“I think about these families that we work with that don’t have that support around them, that are trying to do it all on their own. I can think of, off the top of my head right now, two or three moms that are in that situation that an ex-husband is not doing his part and they’ve moved here and they don’t have family close by and they’re just on their own. It’s hard. It’s overwhelming.

“I think about, if I had not had my mom and my neighbors and the school teachers and friends that wrapped around us and helped me, kept my kids, helped me with things around the house, those types of things, I wouldn’t have been able to finish school.

“That’s why I’m so passionate about it. You always want your kids to have it better than you had it. Mine may not have had it a whole lot better than I had it, but they’re going to. When they get out of college they’re going to have a better life for themselves.”

If the success of her children is any indication of the type of outcomes that can be achieved through Family Connection programs, there’s no doubt in my mind the organization has an ideal leader at the helm.

All three of Patsy’s girls are attending college and working while in school. Courtney is poised to graduate from Georgia Tech in May with a degree in biochemistry, while her twin sister Chelsea will graduate from UGA in December with a degree in journalism and a minor in political science. Candace, the youngest of the “Shirley Girls,” thanks to numerous scholarships that cover her entire tuition, attends Berry College where she is majoring in management with a minor in theater.

While the graduation of her crew will mark a milestone in Patsy’s life, the Family Connection chief is more committed than ever to her work with the organization and she has a solid vision for its future.

Because Family Connection funding is limited, with each county receiving the same amount of money from the state level, Patsy has long been a champion of having Lee County Family Connection designated as a nonprofit.

That dream became a reality last year and now the organization has an additional nonprofit board that works in conjunction with the collaborative board to accomplish its community improvement goals.

“I have two boards actually,” said Patsy. “I have the collaborative board, which has been in place since day one, and they oversee the state funds we get for our Family Connection grant and our annual plan. But you know our annual plan has all these programs in there that we have no money for. So when we developed the nonprofit in 2016, we have a separate, very small, it’s five members now, nonprofit board. And their job is to help find the money and to fund the collaborative projects.”

In addition to her vision of the nonprofit being able to generate more funding for programs, Patsy said she’d like to see the organization move out of the Lee County Board of Education space it currently occupies into its own facility, which would allow for the expansion of what Family Connection can offer.

“Our long-term vision, we’re calling it the Family Engagement Academy,” she explained. “In our vision it’s a facility, it’s our own building, so we know we’re a few years down the road from that.

“I don’t want to say it’s going to be like Strive 2 Thrive in Dougherty County because it’s not, but there are some similarities. I’m going to go through some training called Bridges out of Poverty and our goal is to work with families one-on-one to help them. So, that’s sort of our long-term goal, so we’re taking baby steps to get there.”

Patsy said the Family Engagement Academy would definitely allow for additional support programs, but more importantly she believes it will help the organization better connect with the families it serves, many of which don’t feel comfortable meeting at school or in other locations that change from program to program.

“The school system’s very supportive and our vision is to walk alongside them,” she said. “But they can only do so much. They can work with the children, they can ask the parents to come to school for different things, but what we’ve discovered is that a lot of these parents, not all, but a lot of them, probably didn’t have very positive interactions when they were in school and so they don’t feel comfortable coming to the school to talk about things.

“They’re more comfortable coming and hanging out with us because we’re not in the school. And we can serve the whole family. We call it multi-generational serving, multi-generational programs. They can bring grandma, or whoever’s in the house, they can bring them to our programs. And even the siblings who aren’t in school yet, they can come. We serve all the children in the home, from birth up to 12th grade. They’re all invited.”

Having a dedicated space would also simply be more convenient.

“The way I explained it to one of the county commissioners is that with our families, well this time I have them come here, next time I have them go to library, then I have them go to this place this time, and this (other) place the next time,” Patsy said. “If they had one place they came to every time I had a program, or Family Connection had a program, that’s consistency and that builds that trust even more. And it gives us room to expand and offer more for the community.”

With such a clear vision it’s no wonder Patsy is excited about the future and has scoffed at suggestions, made after her daughters graduated from high school, that she move to a new community.

“When my last one graduated (high school), my twins graduated in 2014 and the youngest in 2015 and because I’m not remarried, I’m just by myself you know, everybody was like, ‘you should just move away Patsy,’” she said. “That was 2015 and then I finally got enough people on the collaborative board to agree to form the nonprofit board and make that move to nonprofit. So I thought, ‘there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel you know.’

“But it takes time. I know it’s not going to be overnight so I think I’m in it for the long haul.”

For me, based on her track record and her obvious commitment to the families of the Lee County community she loves, the thought of Patsy staying involved with Family Connection for the long haul is quite comforting. 

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen