FAST from the perspective of a community partner: Building connections with families and communities

In this blog post about building relationships between schools and community partners, we have explored the advantages of partnerships between schools and community-based organizations for the purpose of implementing the FAST® Program. Community partners serve schools by administering funds, participating as a member of the FAST Team, and handling program logistics, such as ordering supplies and submitting evaluations. But, these partnerships are also beneficial for community organizations and create opportunities to bring together families and resources, while improving family dynamics.

These benefits are evident in the FAST for Elementary School level implementation currently running through Jewish Community Services of South Florida, which administers program funding from The Children’s Trust. FAST cycles occur at two sites run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami: South Dade Child Development Center and Sagrada Familia Child Development Center.

“We have good connections with social workers at local centers and if they identify a family who would benefit from FAST, they will share details of the program,” said Marlen Perez, FAST Program Coordinator and Mental Health Partner. “We have open enrollment, and a family’s participation in FAST is voluntary. We pull from centers that are 95 to 98 percent Spanish speaking, so we offer the program in Spanish. We have Spanish versions of the FAST Hello, Song and Rain, but the rest of the program, especially the emphasis on a consistent routine each week, is the same.”

Through FAST, these sites have opportunities to:

Enhance Family Relationships and Reduce Social Isolation

“We encourage family functioning through games and laughter,” said Perez. “The fathers work very hard and may only see their children for one hour at a time, but at FAST, families eat and play together. The program also helps to build relationships among families, many of whom are immigrants. Families may have different countries of origin, but they share the experience of going through the immigration process and adjusting to a new country. They find a common purpose and bond, and our families stick together in FASTWORKS®.”

Encourage and Reassure Parents

“I use a cell-phone analogy to talk about parenting: ‘It’s not what we grew up with or even what we had 10 years ago.’ Discipline and how kids are raised has changed and evolved for the better. Plus, parents are trying to balance the culture of their country of origin, while adopting the ways of their new home. We help them with this process and reassure them that, ‘It will be okay.’”

Bridge the Gap Between Families and Services

“As the community partner specializing in mental health, I help families by providing information and access. Many of them have experienced trauma or are dealing with anxiety. We usually start with the child’s teacher and school to see if their services can help, but we also refer families to services in the community, such as speech therapy. Some of our families are better at navigating the system; for others, it’s very new and a challenge for them to get to the right place. Our team can help expedite the process and connect them with the right person.”

As demonstrated in program evaluations, FAST has made a difference for families. They report decreased stress, less family conflict and increased family expressiveness. Teachers report improved relationships with parents and greater parent involvement in school. One family commented, “We learned to listen to each other, to have time as a family. The interaction with other families is the best!”

For schools and community partners that are just starting to work together, Perez advises to make sure the team is representative of the culture of participants, and to pay attention to the community. “It’s important to look at possible barriers and think about life in their shoes,” she concluded. “The goal is to work together and empower families to be advocates for their children. The message our FAST Team shares is, ‘I’m here to help and let’s do this together!’”