The Family Center of Columbus has been empowering families within the community of Columbus, Georgia, for over a century. Serving approximately 10,000 families and community members each year, the organization has been responding and adapting to local needs since it was founded in 1909. As part of an umbrella-approach to increasing family engagement, The Family Center of Columbus currently offers four engagement programs in addition to FAST®, including Family Counseling of Columbus, Consumer Credit Counseling Services, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Rally Point.
The FAST Program was first implemented in Columbus in 2007. “It was something very much needed in this area to help families really become more engaged with each other, with their schools,” explained Krystle Newton, FAST Program Director at The Family Center. The Family Center aspired to “build the community up” by helping families to “become more connected with themselves and with the area.” To meet the community’s need for family engagement, Krystle’s predecessor sought out programs that would benefit children and families, and Families & Schools Together offered a versatile program that was able to serve as a gateway to the two-generational approach valued by The Family Center at the time.
With the assistance of a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, The Family Center was able to successfully pilot FAST at a local school district. “It went over very, very well with the families and the schools that it was in,” said Krystle. As families started to experience the benefits of the program, which were also reflected in program evaluations, The Family Center began to pursue the expansion of FAST into several more schools in the Columbus area. Over the years, following changes in leadership, The Family Center’s focus has shifted away from the two-generational approach, according to Krystle. “We prefer to focus on the family as a whole and solving the problems there that could be causing undue stress to the child and the child-parent relationship in order to help solve the problems children go through in school, socially, and at home.” While the priorities of The Family Center have shifted over time in order to meet family and community needs, FAST has remained a steadfast component of The Family Center’s offerings; its versatility and adaptability have enabled the organization’s partnership with Families & Schools Together to continue to grow for over a decade. The Family Center’s most recent FAST expansion was into Phenix City, Alabama, with the establishment of a community hub during the last FAST cycle.
Open-mindedness has been one key to this success. “You’re going to have families come in who don’t want to have anything to do with FAST,” said Krystle. It is important to not be discouraged when families are hesitant to participate in the initial phases of the program since families often shy away from the unfamiliar and adding something new to their lives. Krystle noted, “It takes a couple of cycles to get to that point when people [want to be in FAST],” adding that it also takes time to figure out how to ‘meet families where they’re at.’ “You… really get on the level of the demographic you’re working with; you have to feel people out and see what they’re looking for.”
Meeting families where they are at – in other words, being able to understand and accommodate the unique needs of families, communities and cultures – has always been valued by Families & Schools Together, which is why the program is 60% adaptable to fit local priorities and needs. In Columbus, Krystle testifies to this, mentioning that she has seen the program work in different ways in different communities; what works well in one FAST cycle at one location does not always work the same for the next cycle or another location (or over time). Being open to change and willing to adapt has been not only pivotal to the success of FAST in Columbus, but also pivotal to the integrity of the program, which has been successfully disseminated worldwide over the course of thirty years.
The benefits of FAST, on the other hand, are universal. Krystle has personally witnessed the program’s impact during her time as a volunteer, then as a coordinator and now in her position as FAST Director. “I’ve seen families come in as just a way for them to get a free meal, or a way for them to win a gift bag … That was the first thing that drew them to FAST. After a few weeks, you start to see the relationships with their kids really begin to develop, and you see them making friends in a bigger social support system within the school or the community that they live in. They start to realize the impact it’s having on their life, so that makes them want to keep coming back.”
Families are doing more than simply “coming back” for each weekly session to experience the benefits of the program, however, as parents in Columbus have also taken on roles integral to the successful expansion of FAST into other school districts. Several years ago, when one FAST parent graduate, Wynona Sanders, moved to a new school district that did not offer FAST, she personally went to the school’s principal to establish a connection with The Family Center. “[My family] enjoyed the family time, the relationships that were built with the other parents, and the support, so we were interested in keeping it going,” said Ms. Sanders. As discussions to implement FAST came to fruition, Ms. Sanders’ dedication to sharing and spreading the impact of the FAST program led her to become the site’s first Parent Partner.
Ms. Sanders’ time as a Parent Partner, a position she has held since, has helped drive a passion for family engagement, “I like to help people…It’s a rewarding feeling knowing that something you said or did in some way impacted the positive outcome of what happened in [another family’s] world.” This is a passion Ms. Sanders will continue to pursue as she takes on a part-time role as Parent Coordinator, in addition to beginning her first semester of college – a decision which has been significantly influenced by her FAST experience; her goal is to obtain her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in social work. “It started off with her original coordinator talking to her about what she wanted to do with her life… we spent a lot of hours talking about her going back to school. I actually referred her to a scholarship for the United Way, and she won it! So she’s starting college next month, and it’s because FAST helped her along the way,” shared Krystle.
The legacy of The Family Center of Columbus within the field of family engagement is truly inspiring to the FAST Community. Families & Schools Together is honored to be a part of The Family Center’s initiatives focused on behavioral and mental health services, parent-child relationships and school performance, and economic self-sufficiency, and aspires to achieve the impact that The Family Center has had, locally, across the nation and around the world with the FAST Program.