Cedar Rapids Project Helps Kids Until They're Grown

By Steve Gravelle, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - In human services, they're "silos:" discrete agencies or programs that focus on a single issue troubling a family.

"Once that issue is addressed and they're discharged, we may not see them unless it's a crisis," said Four Oaks spokeswoman Lisa Pritchard. "The way the contracts are set up with the state, the child has issues, we treat the kid, and we're finished."

Until the next crisis — a rent increase, car trouble, medical emergency, school trouble. The file is reopened; counselors or social workers scramble to renew connections with the family.

But what if the connection was kept until the child is grown? That's the idea behind TotalChild, the program launched last year by Cedar Rapids-based non-profit Four Oaks.

"We can pick up where we left off, rather than starting over," said Theresa Jones, one of TotalChild's eight success managers.

"It's just really trying to understand how our kids are becoming successful adults," said Amy Grunewaldt, TotalChild director. "We know we can provide a service for them, but then there's other things in their lives. There is no other program out there that follows a kid until he's 18."

Since July 1, 2011, 342 families have enrolled in TotalChild through referrals from schools, juvenile courts, the Department of Human Services and self-referrals. The voluntary program's goal is 600 families.

OPPORTUNITY TO OWN

Kelly Jennings, single mother of two daughters, is one of the self-referrals.

Jennings, 34, was attracted by TotalChild's housing program after meeting Four Oaks CEO and President Jim Ernst at a neighborhood block party this summer.

Jennings, who works nights as a certified nursing assistant at a Cedar Rapids nursing home, sees TotalChild's Wellington Heights Initiative as her best opportunity to own her home.

"I make just enough to pay my bills, basically," she said. "It's not really the only way of achieving that, but probably the most realistic way."

When her current lease is up next spring, Jennings and daughters Kaeniece Lanier, 12, and Lola Jennings, 5, will move to one of the Affordable Housing Network's rehabbed Wellington Heights homes. She'll improve her household budget skills through Horizons' credit counseling program while $100 of her monthly rent goes toward a down payment to buy her new home.

"By the time my credit's fixed, I'll be able to take over the property," Jennings said.

LINK TO SERVICES

For other needs, Four Oaks' success managers connect TotalChild families to counseling and other services needed to become stable and self-sufficient. The services may come from Four Oaks itself or from 64 partner agencies.

An initial interview assesses a family's status, needs, and goals. Families and Four Oaks cooperate on a plan for meeting goals in four basic areas: child, family, education, community.

"If you address all of those, then you can help a family become successful," said Grunewaldt.

Managers call TotalChild families up to four times a week to monitor progress and keep up with potential problems before they become major setbacks.

Jennings' family isn't likely to require much attention. She said daughter Kaeniece, a seventh-grader at Wilson Middle School, gets straight As. Lola, 5, is a kindergartner at Grant Wood Elementary.

"I just love Grant Wood," Jennings said as she and the girls played a game in their living room on an evening off from work. "It's just awesome."

Both girls attend the after-school Achievement Academy at Jane Boyd Community House, where Kaeniece can finish her day's homework before Jennings collects the girls shortly after beginning her day.

"I try to get them involved inasmuch as they're able to be," she said.

TotalChild is "kind of like a circle, or an umbrella," Jennings said. "It's nice to have a support system. I don't have a lot of family who can help me that way. I know it's there."
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