By Gracie Bonds Staples, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic would come to bear down upon us, DePriest Waddy was sitting in his office at Families First when a mother and father stopped in with their two young sons in tow.
There’s no polite way to put this, but they were a mess.
The dad had lost his job. The mom was showing signs of addiction. They were all hungry.
If that isn’t enough to make you weep, listen to what their older son had to say: “I wish my parents had left me in foster care,” he told Waddy. “Why did they pull me out to live in a car for three months?”
It was a good question, and if I had to guess, it wasn’t the first time some kid in this city too busy to hate, indeed this entire country, asked the same thing.
Waddy, CEO of the nonprofit, donned his social work cap and went to work.
“We got them food first because that’s what a nurturing relative or caregiver would do,” he told me recently. “Then we got them a change of clothes and a shower. We then were able to galvanize resources to find them a place to stay, to get dad a job and begin the process of getting the family stable.”
It just so happened that Waddy had for months been thinking about such families and specifically how his agency might improve upon its mission so that families who dot its doors become self-reliant and stable for the long haul.
By then, of course, Families First had already had a long history of working with such families.
For more than 130 years, its staff has been focused on providing families and children with a range of services — from adoption to foster care placement to parenting classes, counseling and educational and housing support to help them break the cycle of poverty.
But in all that time, the adults for the most part took a back seat to the needs of the child.
In a spirited discussion with his staff prior to the coronavirus shutdown, Waddy told me, there was a shift in that thinking and he saw in this family the opportunity to take a two-generation approach to helping and soon thereafter launched a new strategy they call the Navigator Care Model.
The model, which will serve some 4,500 families beginning on Atlanta’s Westside and in Gwinnett County over the next three years, customizes services to meet the unique challenges of each family so that they become more resilient to life’s ups and downs.
Families First’s new mission?
Build resilient families so all children can thrive.
This was Waddy’s brainchild but the game changer, he said, is the model.
“It’s like utilizing a ‘quarterback’ who provides intensive early intervention services,” he said. “Navigators engage, listen and connect families to our programs and other community resources that meet their needs. Every family member we see will be screened using an evidence-based tool that measures their resilience so we can see where they are, build the right plan to help them, and then measure resilience again at the end of treatment to see how far they have come.”
They won’t do this work alone. Using the data they collect, Families First will collaborate with dozens of local nonprofits, including WorkSource Atlanta, the Westside Future Fund, Georgia Center for Opportunity, and Good Samaritan. Together they will provide the support a family needs, when they need it.
And the family that inspired this work? They’re now in a home. The mom and dad have promising job leads. And the children are back in school, making friends.
I think Waddy and his team are on to something.