Families Helping Families – A Cost Effective View of Prevention and How To Save The Community Millions of Dollars

Caring and Sharing: It Takes a Village…

‘What are we going to do about the Abrahams?’ Yvonne, John, Christine and Jenny were sitting on tiny chairs in the middle of the ‘Neighbourhood Centre’ they had established just two years earlier. John and Jenny were both professionals with very young kids. He, a recently widowered social worker, and she, a psychologist and single mum. At that time there was no local childcare centre so they started one.

Yvonne was the wonderful woman they had appointed to run the centre. When Jenny’s kids were born she’d decided that she would only ever leave them with people she trusted implicitly, and Yvonne ticked all the right boxes. Faith in Yvonne was reinforced on a daily basis when she’d greet a delighted three year old, dressed to the nines in a pink tutu, ballet shoes and a footy jumper with ‘hello Roy, you’re looking beautiful today,’ or an overwrought mum with ‘come in here and have a sit down love. I’ll bring you a cuppa in a sec.’ Christine was one of the mums who had been the recipient of an Yvonne hug very early on, and was now an avid supporter and helper at the place.
The Abrahams were a family both John and Jenny had occasion to visit in their professional capacities, as the Abraham kids had recently been reported. They were all thin to the point of emaciation, smelt as if they had not bathed in weeks, and looked constantly frightened.

Threats by children’s services to take the children away simply drew ‘that’s ok, you do that an’ I’ll pop out a few more to replace ‘em. Ya can’t stop me ‘havin’ kids,’ from mum.

Jenny and John decided to try a different tack.
‘Yvonne, how many families that you’ve seen recently here at the centre do you believe are really struggling with their kids?’ Jenny asked quietly.
She frowned, ’about half a dozen, really struggling, but we have a lot that are doing really well though’.

‘I have an idea to bring them together. Can we go into your office and chat?’
‘I’ll stay here and help keep an eye on things,’ said Christine plonking herself down on the floor with two toddlers who were making serious attempts at future careers in development with their building blocks.

As they moved across the room, Yvonne, in her effortlessly mothering manner straightened some chairs, picked up and cuddled a toddler clinging to her knees, grabbed a paper towel to mop another child’s face, then the floor of some spilled milk, and patted the shoulder of a dad who was dropping his little girl off.
‘What are you thinking?’ she asked Jenny as they crammed into the cupboard she referred to as her office. ‘I’ve been working a lot lately with getting kids and teachers to learn collaboratively from each other and getting some terrific outcomes,’ Jenny replied. ‘I’m thinking it would be great if we could match families up, kind of like a dating service. If we could get the functioning and dysfunctional families talking to each other, I reckon we could see some really interesting stuff.’
‘So how would we make that happen? Asked John, wriggling uncomfortably on the shelf he was trying to sit on.

‘I know it would be totally subjective, but maybe if the three of us could pool our experience and choose six families who need support, and at least six who seem to be doing well, that would be a good starting point.’ Our criteria were deliberately loose and eventually we came up with our twelve families. Interestingly all the ‘non-functional’ families had two parents, both living at home with the kids. The ‘good’ families included a single dad (not John!), a single mum and a pair of women raising three kids. The others were traditional two parent families.
Both sets of families were invited to a shared barbeque. Christine had arranged some babysitters so twenty seven kids played happily together in one space of the Neighbourhood Centre while Jenny facilitated a discussion about the challenges of parenting in another.

As she moved around the room one conversation caught her attention. Discretely eavesdropping, she heard David’s comment ‘so ya really barf your kids. I wouldn’t know where to start wiv my lot.’ Joe responded ‘well I don’t have a choice mate. My wife died so it’s up to me to look after my kids now and I have to bath them. Tell you what – how about if we come over on Saturday. You could show me how to fix the mower, and I’ll show you how to bath the kids. What do you reckon?’

And so it began. With a little prompting, some gentle encouragement, and a lot of food, both sets of parents willingly shared their respective expertise, just as they had hoped. Each fortnight they would all meet together to share experiences. In the intervening week, a prearranged meeting would occur between various families for a specific purpose. Between them all they shared anything and everything from cooking and cleaning lessons, how to eat at a table, to how to amuse kids without TV. There was a marked improvement in hygiene and appearance at the meetings, and smiles slowly replaced anxiety. It wasn’t all smooth sailing but John and Jenny were able to support, advise and coach where needed, and of course Yvonne was always good for a hug and a cuppa. The program extended to one year, and went on for many more. As the kids grew, the meetings were less frequent, but Christmas was shared for 15 years until they all eventually went their own ways. .

It doesn’t take a lot to help families, sometimes good intentions, minimal resources and created opportunity are enough. Not one of the kids from any of those groups ended up on drugs, or in jail. The estimate was that thirty barbeques saved the community, between eight and ten million dollars. Not a bad day’s work.