Last week I sat down (virtually of course!) with our Familyhood Program Director, Sasha Simmons, to discuss how the program has been affected by COVID-19. Familyhood is a parent-support program that offers classes focusing on developing strengths-based assets, through The Search Institute’s, “Raising Highly Capable Kids” curriculum. The pandemic completely altered the course of Sasha’s work, yet some beautiful and unexpected stories have come from the struggle of the past 6 months!
Holly: Take us back to March 2020, what was happening with Familyhood at that point?
Sasha: In early March we were gearing up to begin in-person classes at several locations. We were planning returning cohorts at Fiske Elementary, two classes through Parent University, and a local church. We were also launching new classes at Sunshine with parents of youth who participate in the Youth Outreach programs as well as at POAH (Preservation for Affordable Housing) for their residents.
Holly: When Covid shutdowns came in mid-March , what were your first thoughts?
Sasha: I pretty quickly had to regroup and figure out how to support my families during this time. We have some overlap with Sunshine’s youth program, so between the youth staff contacting their parents and me calling the parents in my network, we contacted around 150 families weekly. The relationships and trust we’d built with families over the years proved to be invaluable during this time of upheaval, as they were more open and vulnerable to share their needs and prayer requests. The ministry to the families changed from group teaching to one on one interactions, checking in, meeting needs and providing emotional and prayer support.
Holly: I know you really helped lead the way in starting to collect data from families, pulling from your social work background to do needs assessments. What were some of the early needs you discovered?
Sasha: Initially, families’ income and living situations weren’t affected yet. The immediate needs were around basic essentials that couldn’t be found at the stores such as toilet paper, disinfectants, masks, and school supplies since the kids were all studying from home. Many of our families only have one grocery store near their house, so if that store is out of basic essentials, they have no idea how many buses they may need to take to get items, or if the stores will even carry those items.
Holly: The needs assessments you and the Youth Outreach staff did early on really allowed Sunshine to move forward quickly on our Mercy Fund work. This allowed us to be proactive about meeting anticipated needs and starting to assemble and distribute care packages. I know you were a crucial part of the team that helped source items. Tell me about that!
Sasha: That was an overwhelming task early on! We found that stores in the city were running out of items quickly so I started developing relationships with store managers in the suburbs. I would give them our 501(c)(3) letter and they would call me when they had items come in. On many occasions I spent 12 hours a day running all around the suburbs gathering items, then driving to the city to drop them off. Most often I would deliver care packages to families that were higher risk and couldn’t safely come outside. The first six weeks were the most intense! I also collaborated closely with Lauren Hamernick who is part of the youth staff and knew families well. We were in touch often about the needs families were expressing and making sure we were recording everything and helping with those needs.
Holly: I’m so grateful to you and Andy Combs and Kym Hubbard for spending countless hours tracking down items for our families, and even the community members, who had need of basic care items.
Sasha: Even though they were really long days, it was an honor to serve families in this way. It was important to me to find out from families even little things like what detergent they preferred, or brand of soap. I wanted to serve them in a manner that preserved their dignity, even at a dire time. While we are a nonprofit organization, we strive to be a ministry who puts the dignity and care of people front and center. I wanted to care for our families in a way that was an expression of Christ’s love for them. We are not a charity – we are a ministry, and there’s a difference.
Holly: Wow! That gives me goosebumps to hear. That’s such a beautiful picture of how even our most basic needs and desires matter to God. What are some specific interactions with families that stick out to you?
Sasha: One memory that sticks out is when we were at Sunshine one afternoon passing out care packages. Each person that came through the door we would offer to pray with. One lady shared her prayer request, and we prayed together. At the end, she left without her care package. I was confused. She said, “Ms. Sasha, I initially came for the care package, but after receiving prayer I realized that God sent me here to receive prayer today. I am grateful for the care package, but the prayer was far more what I needed. Please give this to someone else who needs this more than me.”
Holly: It’s been really humbling to see how God has used Sunshine in the Woodlawn community during these last 6 months. We’ve been able to reach more than 800 households outside the Sunshine network, who heard of us and called us on our helpline.
Sasha: Yes, the generosity of the Woodlawn community continues to amaze me. So many people would come to get their care packages or boxes of food and then go share with their neighbors and other family members who had been financially impacted by the pandemic.
Holly: Kind of reminds me of Jesus multiplying the fish and bread! Are there any other families that stick out in your mind?
Sasha: One lady, Sherry, trained to be a facilitator of our parenting class. She has not been able to work during this time and is caring for two adopted children with special needs and was also a care provider for her mother who has dementia. As bills were piling up, we helped her by delivering meals, care packages, and with bill pay assistance. Eventually she was able to move to a safer neighborhood. I was blessed to be a listening ear and part of her support system during this time. I’ve received countless text messages and calls from families that are appreciative of the support Sunshine has given during this time. It was truly an honor to serve the community in this way.
Holly: I know you’ve been such an emotional, spiritual, and physical support to families these last 6 months. What does your program look like heading into the fall?
Sasha: Well, since we’re still socially distancing and schools are not opening in person, all our classes will be offered online as well. We’re working through the logistics of this, possibly offering smaller courses to parents who have already gone through our Raising Highly Capable
Kids curriculum to dig a little deeper. We are also considering having virtual office hours available to families to check in for support.
Holly: Are there ways people can support the work you’re doing?
Sasha: Currently, needs of families are still being identified daily. Those needs vary from a request to be connected to community resources to a request for emotional support. Supporting our SGM General Budget would provide the flexibility to continue responding to these needs and allow us to adapt our programming as needed due to COVID-19.