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Relationships instill life skills for children, families

By Mary Stamp

Freda and children

Freda Gandy

Improving the quality of life for children begins with knowing each child’s name and having a relationship with each one, said Freda Gandy, the new 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 Freda’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, Freda has seen how the center’s programs have had impact on 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 added.  “We help break down barriers and provide support through the years.”

The community social service center, at 845 S. Sherman in Spokane’s ethnically diverse East Central area, seeks to live the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., “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.”

Freda, 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,” she said.  “I’m thrilled to help families like me, many single parents, juggling school, work and life pressures.”

Having worked under seven directors, serving three times as interim director, and seeing staff turnover, her goal is to bring consistency and stability.  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,” said Freda.

“Our waiting lists are growing.  More people need our services,” she said.  “It’s hard to turn a child away.  ECEAP preschool has space for 35 children, and before- and after-school programs serve 25 children.”

The summer program was at capacity, serving 55 children from three-and-a-half to 12 years old, nurturing literacy and character through activities and field trips. 

The summer teen leadership program—originally designed for 10 teens—expanded to accommodate 19 as classroom aides and in workshops on diversity, college preparation and resume writing.

“The teens are too young to be home alone and too old for day care,” she said.  “Depending on their volunteer hours, they receive gift certificates to buy clothing and supplies for school.”

“The economy means we see families we would not normally see because they are unemployed and need help with rent,” she said.  “We could help more if we had more funding.  Government funding is down, so we had to drop one ECEAP slot.”

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.

Freda, 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,” Freda said.

Previously when she served as interim director and since she began as permanent director last October, Freda continued to do the work of director of children’s services, until August, when she hired Darnell.

Darnell
Darnell Griffin

Darnell, who brings a commitment to nurture fathers so they listen to and strengthen their bond with their children, will start a 12-week course beginning in October.  He will help fathers explore their childhoods and learn what they want to throw away, pass on and add to their experiences as fathers.

“It’s one more way we can help families set and meet goals so they can stand on their own two feet,” Freda said. 

Darnell grew up in a low-income family in South Seattle and attended a Headstart preschool.

After graduating from high school he studied at ITT.  In 1991, he began with Hewlett Packard, until they began shipping departments abroad.  In 1999, he went to Spokane Community College.  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 Darnell 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,” said Darnell, who worked 11 months with Spokane Mental Health until he applied for the job at the Martin Luther King Center.  There 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 said.  “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 better persons and are more likely to want to hold a job to support their families.  They think of their children first.

“That strengthens family relationships,” he said, noting that when he has taught similar classes, “mothers expressed gratitude and children have said their fathers hugged them more and were more patient.”

Darnell and Freda said the challenge now facing the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center is its need to grow. 

Its $1-a-year rent from the city for a remodeled former firehouse makes funds available to do 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.

The program started at Grant Elementary School, then met at Liberty Park Terrace and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church before moving into the firehouse in 1984.

“We need funds to provide programs,” Freda said.  We put people first, because we know what it means in people’s lives if services are cut.”

The annual fund raising luncheon will be at 11:45 a.m., Wednesday, Nov. 10, at the Davenport Hotel, 10 S. Post St.

For information, call 455-8722 or visit mlkspokane.org.