Focus on Community in Racine, Wisconsin, is a nonprofit substance abuse prevention agency with a mission “to unite our community in an effort to prevent substance abuse and inspire healthy choices.” Through a variety of research-based and model programs, Focus teaches important life skills to youth and families and provides them with the tools needed to achieve long-term success.
Focus is one of Families & Schools Together’s longest-standing partners — maintaining the FAST® Program in Racine for 28 years. Sheila Simonsen, Director of Youth and Family Programs, attributes FAST’s sustainability in the community, in part, to the FAST Team, many of whom are former participants of the program.
“They have personally experienced, firsthand, the transformation FAST has had on their families,” said Ms. Simonsen. “They’re not just seeing it in other examples of families, but they can actually relate and share their own personal stories when they recruit families.”
Before taking on her current role of Team Advocate, Lisa Avila had served as a Parent Partner after completing the FAST Program with her own family.
“Once we let these families know that we’ve been through FAST — that we were in the same position — it breaks down those barriers. We’re not here to just tell you what you should be doing,” said Ms. Avila. “We’ve done it, we’ve experienced it, we know what is has done for us, and we’re just like you.”
Ms. Simonsen is also a former FAST Graduate and remembers being recruited for the program.
“I sat there going, ‘Yeah, I don’t think this program’s really for me. I eat dinner with my family. I play with my kids already. This sounds like for somebody who doesn’t already do those things,’” she said. “It was my community support partner at the time that flipped the tables on me and said, ‘But we really need families like yours to be good role models for the rest of our families.’”
This conversation boosted Ms. Simonsen’s confidence to join FAST. As a participant, she realized that, even though she was playing and eating dinner with her children, she wasn’t truly engaging with and listening to them — at least, not in the way FAST taught her to.
“When I was playing with them, it was more of telling them how to play — not letting them express how they like to play with toys [like in FAST]. Or even at dinner, just understanding why it was so important to eat family meals,” said Ms. Simonsen.
While some positive changes can be observed during the program, others take time, according to Ms. Avila. Ms. Avila remembers one family in particular who didn’t exhibit any obvious changes during their first eight weeks of the program. But when the parent returned years later with her second child, she shared how eating dinners together had become a family ritual since their first FAST Cycle.
“Everybody wants instant gratification, and sometimes you don’t get that in the FAST Program. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. So I love hearing the experience from the other families when we see them, and again, later, when a few years go by,” said Ms. Avila.
And with nearly three decades of FAST in Racine now gone by, the long-term positive impacts of the program are becoming especially apparent as former FAST children are returning to participate with their own children; a feat made possible by a strong partnership with local funders, said Ms. Simonsen.
To cultivate these strong partnerships, Ms. Simonsen recommended inviting funders to events like FAST Graduation where they can personally see the difference the program has had on families. It is also important for school personnel to be able to speak to funders about positive changes in the larger school community, in addition to documenting and sharing success stories of individual families. Yet, despite these strong partnerships, Ms Simonsen said funding remains to be Focus’ biggest challenge. The FAST Team has had to get creative, including applying for mini-grants and working with local churches, businesses, and civic groups to host book or board game drives.
Another challenge Focus has faced is recruiting families and learning to adapt to changes in communication technology. The FAST Team has come to value texting — which Ms. Simonsen remembers being told by her former director to never do — as the first line of communication for maintaining regular correspondence with families.
Focus on Community is continually evolving their programming, along with their use of technology, to best serve the community. Given that the organization has offered FAST for so long, Ms. Simonsen, admittedly, had previously wondered if FAST was still the right program for Racine (after so many years); and as a recent attendee of the 2019 Training of Trainers conference, she said she is reassured that it is.
“I’m really excited to see what’s going on with FAST moving forward because, in my position as the Director of Youth and Family Programs, I try to make sure that we’re always evolving and meeting the needs of our community and the families that we work with — not just doing something because we’ve been doing it for 20 to 30 years,” said Ms. Simonsen. “It’s nice to know that FAST is also looking forward to the future and adapting as times change.”