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Guest opinion: ‘Helping Family Center’ for Lehigh Acres?

October 13, 2011
By DR. ROBERT CHAMBERLIN , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Today more and more families are in a balancing act based on their ability to cope with the stresses of loss of jobs, housing and health insurance. At the same time these stresses are often increased by the loss of contact with supportive family members and friends because of moves to new places to look for jobs and/or to find less expensive places to live. As their capacity to handle all these changes gets overwhelmed we begin to see more incidents of child abuse and neglect, marital problems, alcohol and substance abuse and community violence.

Some places have found that establishing community drop- in centers for families with young children have provided a safe havens for stressed families and reduced many of these problems. Is this something that might be of help for families in Lehigh Acres?

For example: In the sixties, Vermont families were experiencing the replacement of high paying manufacturing jobs with good benefits by low paying service jobs with poor benefits.

There was an increase in teenage pregnancies, school drop out and single parents working full time out of the home. Residents of Addison County got together and established a "Parent/Child Center" which provided a place where these families could get together with their children, socialize with other parents in the same situation, learn about child development and care, get help solving financial, housing and health care problems, and learn new domestic and job skills.

After seven years of operation studies showed county wide reductions in rates of child abuse and neglect, increased high school graduation rates of teen parents, and reduced dependency on welfare. Because of these accomplishments other areas in the state developed centers. Today there are 16 with at least one in every county .

State and local government provides some financial support along with foundation grants, support by local businesses, and local fund raising. Based on the successful Vermont experience, "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire has also established a net work of these centers around the state.

The Harlem Heights area in Fort Myers is a local example of how a community can come together and improve housing, reduce crime, and improve the education of young children. They are currently adding a multipurpose Arts Center that includes recreational and cultural activities for children and youths of all ages and a meeting place for parents with young children. The Quality of Life Center located on Martin Luther King Blvd. is another example of a community center for families, children and youths. Both these centers are the results of hard work over many years with collaboration between community residents, the private sector and local and state government.

The slogan for successful start up of programs is "Think Big! Start Small." Many of the centers in Vermont and New Hampshire started in a church basement, a trailer, a house needing lots of repairs, a storefront or a school classroom. They slowly added more family support activities and space over time. We are currently developing a neighbourhood walk- in center for families with young children at the United Way East House on Palm Beach Blvd.

We think such a center would be good for Lehigh Acres.

For more information contact Dr. Robert Chamberlin. He is a retired public health paediatrician and community consultant now living in the area. He can be reached at 239-454-3917. Another contact is Charlotte Rae Nicely, executive director, Lehigh Community Services at 239-369-5818.



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