Transforming Families with Love

By Brad McEwen

I certainly had an inkling of the issue during most of my life here in Albany, but as I got older and started to understand more about the makeup of this community, it was jarring when I ultimately came to realize that so many of our residents live in poverty.

Recent statistics indicate that over 30 percent of Dougherty County residents live below the poverty line, and even more frightening, over 40 percent of our children, and nearly 47 percent of children under the age of 5, are living without basic necessities.

While there are myriad reasons that we have such a large population in such a desperate situation, I’m of the mindset that part of the cause, and in turn, part of the solution, lies in education—specifically basic literacy skills.

Some additional statistics—some 23 percent of the adult population in the state of Georgia operates on a Level 1 reading level, meaning they have difficulty using the reading, writing and computational skills needed to effectively function in everyday life. Nationwide that number is just over 20 percent. In Dougherty County, however, 33 percent of the adult population is considered Level 1. Additionally nearly 43 percent of all Level 1 adults live in poverty.

It’s hard to hear those facts and not feel there’s a direct correlation between literacy and poverty—meaning that if we teach our residents how to read, it will likely help them learn basic life skills that might ultimately help them out of a difficult situation.

And it turns out I’m not alone in that thinking.

At the urging of several area residents whom I greatly respect, I had the distinct pleasure recently of spending some time with Dougherty County Family Literacy Council, Inc. Executive Director Sandy Bamford, learning about the important work the nonprofit is doing to improve the quality of life for so many of our residents, and seeing firsthand the passion that has spurred on Sandy’s work since she was named the Literacy Council’s first-ever director nearly 20 years ago.

“The first time I ever heard of family literacy I was at a conference in Atlanta and the speaker shared about the concept of family literacy,” the long-time educator explained. “Something inside me clicked and I just knew that it was something significant. The concept makes sense you know.”

That concept, Sandy further explained, is essentially to try and improve the circumstances of families living in poverty through literacy education aimed at the entire family.

From child development programs, parenting classes, and adult education, to GED prep classes, after school and summer programs, and much more, the Literacy Council’s Family Literacy Connection efforts are geared to transform a family’s circumstances by addressing a multitude of issues through literacy and education.

“It’s like the palm of your hand and each of these different areas, the adult education, the parenting, the early childhood development, are like the fingers and they all come together,” Sandy said. “All of those work together for a full strategy for family literacy. All of the programs work together as a whole. “It’s a family issue.”

One example of the problem that Sandy shared involved a frightening, but sadly not uncommon, experience the organization dealt with several years ago.

“Not having literacy skills just makes life difficult,” Sandy said. “One example we had several years ago makes it very clear. We had a child that came in, no more than an infant, sleeping. And we couldn’t wake the child. In investigating and talking with the mother, we found out she had given the child all four doses of her medicine at one time that morning. She didn’t understand how to read the instructions and give the child the medicine.

“That kind of thing is important, the health and safety of a child. And when you have a parent who has school-aged children and they’re not able to read the messages that are sent home from school, they’re not able to help the children with their homework and give them the support they need.”

In addition to not having the skills needed to properly care for their children, Sandy said most of the adults with low literacy levels also don’t provide any literacy education or skills to their children, meaning those children are likely to grow to adulthood with similar literacy struggles.

Those children also often struggle behaviorally, which in turn affects self-esteem and their ability to function in a complex world.

“Vocabulary with children is such an important part of them being able to learn to read and be successful,” she said. “If the children don’t have the words to express themselves, it brings frustration too. Like with a two-year old. When you have a 2 year-old and they’re not able to communicate yet, they get frustrated and act out. So being able to read and write and express yourself is important in every area of your life—being able to read instructions on a job application, you know, complete them, it’s just everything.

“And then it becomes the natural cycle,” she continued. “If the parents don’t have the vocabulary, their children don’t get it from their parents. Those are our first learning experiences, the most important years, the time that child learns the most—birth to age 4. When they miss out on that time, they’re behind. So they start school behind and then the gap just gets bigger as they get older.

“When you have parents with a limited vocabulary, they don’t teach words to their children and they don’t understand how important it is.

“That’s one thing we try to do with our adult education, with our parenting education is to have them understand that they need to be constantly talking to their children, reading to their children, so that they develop vocabulary. But when you’re poor and living on the edge it’s not a high priority. So we’re helping them get to a place where they’re stable enough that they can begin to concentrate on those things that their children need.”

Getting those families to a place of stability, so that they can properly focus on literacy in the household, is really at the heart of what the Family Literacy is all about, and Sandy explained that it requires attacking problems from a multitude of angles.

For example, one of the things Family Literacy Connection offers is an incentive program where families who agree to take part on the overarching literacy programs are given an opportunity to earn “bargain bucks” which they can redeem for necessary items they can’t acquire with food stamps—things like diapers, laundry detergent, deodorant, toothpaste and more.

The thought is, with some of those necessities taken care of, the family is in a better position to focus their attention on literacy.

To take part in that incentive program, however, does require some commitment on the part of the families where they have to take part in whatever Family Literacy programs are prescribed by organization staff after an initial assessment.

In all, families have access to eight programs all designed to address some aspect of literacy education with that family. The Early Childhood Development program provides infants, toddlers and pre-K aged children, whose parents are involved in the Family Literacy programs, with licensed developmental instruction to ensure they are getting the early childhood education they need to be successful.

Through the organization’s Adult Education classes, parents who dropped out of school are given GED training and computer education in hopes that they can improve their education and employment situation.

In Parenting Classes, participating adults spend an hour each day learning a variety of skills to become more effective parents. Then through the PACT (Parent and Child Together) program mothers and fathers spend time in their child’s classrooms where facilitators provide them with activities designed to support their child’s developmental, social and emotional needs.

With the PAT (Parents as Teachers) program, certified Family Literacy staff conduct at-home visits with a participating family with children under 5 years-old to help the parents of those children model effective parenting skills and provide necessary child development during the crucial early years of a child’s life.

The organization also provides the Parent Cafes program in which participating parents can build relationships with other parents and build a natural, communal support system.

Additionally, Family Literacy Connection offers After School Care and summer programs for children 5 to 11 designed to provide fun and engaging academic support, as well as physical activity through tennis instruction. That program, known as Reading and Racquets, is available to children whose families are enrolled in the Family Literacy program and to other low-income children meeting certain criteria.

While each program has its own unique benefits for the participants, once again, Sandy said, it’s all about tackling a variety of problems impacting the entire family.

“We have a holistic approach to serving these families,” Sandy said. “It’s a family problem so we have to provide services to the entire family.”

Of course, like any non-profit, the key to being able to serve families is having the available resources to provide all of the Family Literacy programs. Sandy said that since the organization was started in 2002 funding has come from a variety of sources, including grants, the Department of Human Services, foundational funding, and from local churches, organizations and individuals. Sandy said they also generate funding by making the Child Development Center available to qualifying families that aren’t otherwise involved in Family Literacy.

With the help of that funding, and with the support of a strong volunteer base, Sandy said Family Literacy is able to provide services to roughly 50-55 families at any given time.

Of course that number can be a little misleading, as Sandy pointed out that most of the families the organization works with are served for multiple years. “Well that number doesn’t include the families we serve with the after school program, which also has a focus on parenting and trying to support parents with parent meetings to help them support their children,” Sandy said. “The Family Literacy program itself was developed to retain a family long enough to make a sustainable difference in the family. And that is not something that happens quickly. It’s very unusual for like someone to come in and get their GED in a week. That’s just unheard of.

“So I would say it’s typically more like two years. We have families that have stayed with us four years and are actually now employed, successful and doing well. So it’s more of a long-term program, generally, because you can’t make that kind of difference in a person’s life in a few weeks or months. “It takes a lot of hard work.”

In fact, it’s that kind of deep commitment to families in need that appeals to Sandy as it mirrors the personal commitment she has for the work she’s doing with Family Literacy—a personal commitment she believes stems from her own experiences growing up and then raising a family of her own while working as an educator.

“I just think I’ve always had a double dose of a mother’s heart,” she told me. “Even with my own children, parenting them was the best part of my life. So much so that I didn’t turn them loose very easily. I homeschooled them. I probably overdid the mothering part. But the constant of helping parents just appealed to me—the idea of helping a mother.

“That part may have come out of my being parented by a teen mother. My mother was 17 when my sister was born and she was 20 when I was born. She was a wonderful parent in taking care of us; she did a great job. But you know there were deficits because of her maturity level.

“So I think all that just gives me great pleasure to be able to help a mother to understand what their child needs and help them to support them doing well in life.

“It just makes it more meaningful.”

Sandy said she also draws meaning from the fact that she believes she is finally fulfilling the purpose God intended for her when she and her husband returned to Albany in 1980 after spending a few years in Auburn after college.

“My father was a Baptist minister and we moved every three or four years,” Sandy said. “We moved to Albany, Georgia when I was senior in high school. So I lived here as a senior and I went to Albany Junior College and then transferred to Auburn. My husband and I—he moved here in 7th grade so he’s kind of from here—we stayed over there I think eight or 10 years after we graduated. Then we moved back to Albany in 1980 I think.

“I don’t know if this is anything you want to include, but when we moved back to Albany in 1980 I felt like God told me that he was going to send me to work with the poor. Well I was a stay-at-home mom at the time, raising my children and all through the years I pondered, ‘What does that mean?’

“But different things in my life that I felt had been impressed on me by God all made sense when I got to Family Literacy. It was just a confirmation of my life experiences and all. I know that I have been doing what I’m supposed to be doing and that gives me great pleasure just to be a part of it.”

While Sandy certainly has a personal passion for what she’s doing, she was keen to point out that any success the organization has had in carrying out its mission, is due to the drive and determination of Family Literacy’s dedicated staff, board members and volunteers.

Throughout my morning meeting with Sandy and visiting the organization’s temporary locations—they will soon be moving all of their programs out the three locations they’ve occupied since the Dougherty County-owned location they were in for years was demolished, to a Dougherty County School System location on Corn Avenue—it was evident that Sandy greatly values every member of the team.

“It’s not about me,” she said. “We have an incredible group of people who make all of this happen.

“I have the people in place that do their jobs and do them well. And to see what we can do to impact the community and culture to make a difference, that’s exciting.

“We give families hope. We give them opportunities to change their lives and make life better for themselves and their children. I think a theme through the years has been when families come to Family Literacy they are treated with kindness and people care about them and respect them and they begin to see value in themselves and they have hope for the future.”

And the future is what it’s all about. As I listened to everything Family Literacy is doing to improve the members of this community, I couldn’t help but think that because of the passion of people like Sandy Bamford, that Albany has a real shot at a better tomorrow.

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

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