Tools for a Better Tomorrow: Family Services of Merrimack Valley

The year after the city of Lawrence was incorporated in 1853, the organization now known as Family Services of the Merrimack Valley (FSMV) was formed as a relief society called the “Lawrence City Mission.” Throughout its 160-year history, the organization evolved in a parallel way to the field of social work, according to Elizabeth Sweeney, executive director of FSMV. For the first 50 years, the group provided material assistance, such as food and clothing. In the 1930s, with the government’s New Deal policies meeting many of those needs, the organization then known as the Family Service Association of Greater Lawrence sought to meet emotional and mental health needs. In the 1980s, the Family Service Association expanded to include programs focused on helping families become self-sufficient.

“The common denominator of what we do in all our programs is to give people the skills they need to overcome a challenge and reach their full potential,” Sweeney explains. “We believe in the ‘teach a person to fish’ philosophy. We educate and support people so they can meet their needs and reach their full potential and independence.”

K’loni is “a blessing,” her parents say. “She’s made us who we are today.” Photo by Meghan Moore.

K’loni is “a blessing,” her parents say. “She’s made us who we are today.” Photo by Meghan Moore.

Family Services is a nonprofit social service organization, not a state agency. As a leader in the community, FSMV collaborates with other agencies, sharing funding and programming when possible.

FSMV offers more than 20 programs in youth development, parent education and mental health and wellness, serving more than 3,000 people in the Merrimack Valley. “All these programs are infused with a sense of hope and possibility, and enable individuals to thrive within their family, community, workplace and school,” Sweeney says.

When Dakota Clarke, then 17, and Louis Gomez, then , discovered that they were pregnant with now-3-year-old, K’loni, they joined Family Services’ Young Empowered Parents (YEP) Program. Through YEP, young parents receive emotional support, help with education, guidance in achieving career goals and information on how to nurture and care for their children.

“We’ve been motivated to raise our child to the best of our abilities,” says , who is a student in the criminal justice program at Northern Essex Community College.

Dakota, K’loni and Louis visit with Betsy Green, Family Services’ parent education facilitator. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Dakota, K’loni and Louis visit with Betsy Green, Family Services’ parent education facilitator. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Gomez grew up without a father. “I didn’t have a dad around to tell me, to show me how to be the person I am. The program gave me the stability and support I needed. I learned how to build and keep a strong family,” he says.

Gomez also participates in FSMV’s Siempre Papa, a curriculum that focuses on fathering and helps men evaluate and improve their parenting skills. “Some of the guys in Siempre Papa come from rough backgrounds,” Gomez says. “Many of us haven’t had male role models. We share our stories, and the program teaches us to value our child, our relationships, our home. And we realize we can be somebody outside the stereotypes of race, color [and] economics.”

In 2013, 84 teenage parents worked toward self-sufficiency through FSMV programs, according to Sweeney. FSMV also offers numerous youth mentoring programs, suicide prevention training, mental health counseling and violence prevention programs. (Future “Community Spotlight” articles will detail their Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and Big Friends Little Friends programs.)

“There are a lot of great organizations in this community providing things like housing, food assistance and recreation,” Sweeney says. “What makes us unique is that the impact we have changes lives today and gives people the tools for a better tomorrow.”

Gomez sums it up: “If everybody took advantage of these programs, it would change the entire community. [Family Services] shows you the better side of life, how to break the cycles and statistics.”

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley
Lawrence, Mass.  /  (978) 327-6600  /  FSMV.org

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