A Focus on Family and Youth Mental Health in Lyons Township, Illinois

October 16, 2017

The Lyons Township Mental Health Commission, established in 1972, is a local planning and funding body “working to enhance community services for persons with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse problems.” Enabling residents to lead more productive and fulfilling lives, the commission promotes coordinated mental health services through local, community-based organizations. In partnership, Pillars, the largest provider of mental health and social services in the near western and southwestern suburbs of Chicago, where Lyons Township is located, local school districts, and the Mental Health Commission have sponsored FAST® in the community for the past 15 years.

In 2002, Lyons Township High School in collaboration with Community Memorial Foundation’s Youth Initiative surveyed 8,000 middle and high school students on a number of factors. The results of which, coupled with low levels of academic achievement, spurred a search for new programming. Pillars, along with other local community organizations, conducted a search and came across FAST. “I was in my second attempt to retire, when I was approached by the superintendent to run FAST at three junior high schools,” said Dale Schaefer, Program Leader for Lyons Township’s FAST Program. “We selected the three schools whose students ranked lowest in self-esteem, and implemented the FAST Program at each school.” Because of the success of FAST in these initial schools, Lyons Township was able to expand the program to serve more families.

“When I first joined the FAST Team as a Community Partner, I was immediately impressed by how the program brought together so many different elements,” said Stan Dembouski, Certified FAST Trainer and FAST Team Member. “I had been working in the field for 25 years doing parent education, parent effectiveness training, leadership development for youth, and substance abuse prevention, but it was all piecemeal. With FAST, all of those pieces were together in one program.”

Over the years, Lyons Township has worked in nine schools and 4 districts within the township, and graduated 705 families, for a total of 3,135 participants. They have implemented programs at the elementary and middle school levels, and have had success, in large part, due to the strong collaboration between community agencies and the schools. One of the schools, Graves Elementary School, has been running FAST for 10 years, graduated 156 families from the program, with 17 graduating from the most recent cycle. Committed school leaders have helped make the program successful. “We are so thankful for the dedication of Principal Hope Durkin, to the families and to the program. She is involved in it all—greeting parents at FAST Sessions, helping with child care, serving food, and washing dishes,” said Mr. Schaefer. “Rarely would one ever find a principal who becomes this involved in a family program, particularly now for the eleventh year in a row.”

Lyons Township has always understood the important role the Community and Mental Health Partners play on the FAST Team. “The relationships created between the families and the community partners are so important. You want to find the right community partner because they can help make sure families are connected to the services they need,” said Mr. Schaefer. Typically, within the program sites, in a given year 13 families self-refer to mental health services, usually through Pillars. During the last cycle at Graves Elementary, seven families self-referred for a variety of services, including family counseling, special education, domestic violence, and crisis intervention.

The FAST Team even created a weekly newsletter for families, which contained information on a variety of topics in which parents expressed interest. Through the newsletter, the Team was able to provide parents with additional information and resources on topics including talking to your children about drugs and alcohol, tips for healthy eating, resolving family conflict, supporting literacy at home, and positive discipline and reinforcement strategies.

In addition to the important role of the community partner, the emphasis on Parent Empowerment throughout the FAST Program helps families seek out the supports they need. “In some of my previous jobs, the dynamic was, ‘We are the social service provider, and we have all the answers.’ With FAST, it was ‘You are in charge of your family, you can make the decisions about what your family needs, and we will support you,’” says Mr. Dembouski. “Coming from certain professions, it can be difficult to change your approach from talking directly to the student to deferring to the parent. But that switch is so critical in that it empowers the parent to feel confident as the leader of the family.”

Lyons Township has also focused on engaging fathers in FAST. Because of his involvement with the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative, which works to engage fathers in the life and welfare of their children, Mr. Dembouski has been able to incorporate some concepts and strategies into his work with FAST. “Sometimes it can be intimidating for fathers to attend a program like this because they may feel like they are going to be the only father in the room,” said Mr. Dembouski. “Having a man on the FAST Team, and giving them a little extra encouragement, can really help to reassure them and get them more involved.”

Mr. Dembouski noticed a particularly dramatic change in one family whose father was struggling with alcoholism. He participated in FAST Program two times—once for each of his children—and by the second cycle the difference was significant. “When they first started, there was a visible emotional distance between the father and his children. He was able to get help through Alcoholics Anonymous and other local supports, and by the end of their time in FAST, you could see the warmth and love shared in the family. It was amazing to watch the transformation,” said Mr. Dembouski.

FASTWORKS® has been an important aspect of sustaining the relationships and connections made by families during FAST. Typically consisting of monthly, parent-led meetings, FASTWORKS has taken many forms in Lyons Township over the years. From community service projects, to discussions held on parent-selected topics, to parent support groups, FASTWORKS has become integrated into several communities. “There is still a group of moms that meet at the same place, once a month, always wearing their ‘FAST Mom’ shirts,” commented Mr. Schaefer.

Another group of FAST Parents was frustrated that there was no playground at the school for their children. “The parents worked with the school district and the city to get a new playground built,” said Mr. Schaefer. “When you have passionate and empowered parents, you can really make change happen.”