Three Ways the Whole Family Approach Builds Resilience

By Paula Sarro, Associate Executive Director, and Debbie Panek, Director of Family and Youth Programs, Mercy Center

When Mercy Center and three other service providers formed the Familia Adelante collaborative in 2017, joining forces to weather a global pandemic was not part of our mission. As a group of like-minded agencies in the New York area, we sought to maximize our impact on improving the well-being of working, low-income families by practicing the Whole Family Approach, a family-led strategy which provides adults and children in the family with the tools to set, plan for, and achieve their goals together. Now more than ever, we now recognize that this collaborative approach and focus on equipping families with the tools to plan for the future is helping us all survive the immediate crisis in which we are now living.

The Whole Family approach seeks to strengthen families and their core capabilities so that the adults and children flourish in all aspects of their lives. It goes without saying that the COVID-19 outbreak has unsettled the ground under the feet of families working towards their goals. Nearly every family we work with is enduring a severe financial hit, as many parents have lost their jobs or had their work hours significantly reduced. School closures have forced families to quickly set up their children for distance learning from home — a particular challenge for those with limited internet and technology access. For larger families living in small spaces, crowded living quarters have strained relationships between family members and pose significant challenges if a family member needs to self-isolate due to illness.

As a collaborative, we have also had to drastically shift how we communicate with each other and the families with whom we partner. To date, Familia Adelante — comprised of Mercy Center, Fiver Children’s Foundation, Qualitas of Life Foundation, and Tanya Valle, a mindfulness practitioner — has partnered with 78 families to achieve a wide range of goals in the areas of economic stability, educational opportunities, family functioning, and adult and child well-being. Each agency within the collaborative contributes services that families can access to achieve their goals and works with other agencies to monitor families’ progress. What we’ve learned in this time of great change is that the trusting relationships and dedication to partnership we’ve built over the years are fundamental to the resilience our collaboration and families are relying on today.

We hope our lessons learned from the Whole Family Approach will be helpful to other nonprofits seeking to grow their impact now and in the future.

  1. The Whole Family Approach builds families’ skills to plan for the future and overcome hardship.

Right now, families have shifted their focus from long-term goals to immediate needs. For example, instead of developing a financial plan to eventually purchase a home, we are working with families to plan how they will pay their rent next month. Rather than exploring college opportunities and vocational aptitudes we’re making sure families have connected with their children’s teachers, are set up with a computer and working internet connection so they can access class work online.

These can feel like frustrating setbacks, but the connected relationships and strengths-based coaching involved in the Whole Family Approach has supported the growth of executive functioning skills in both the adults and children. These core skills help families navigate times of adversity and shift their focus to meeting urgent needs. For example, the first thing families learn when they begin working with Qualitas of Life is the importance of saving money and managing a budget. As a result, many families have set aside money toward an emergency fund or a long-term goal, such as purchasing a home. Those funds are helping families cover their immediate financial priorities. Similarly, the work families have done setting educational goals for their children by working with the Fiver Children’s Foundation enables parents to continue motivating their school-aged children to keep up their schoolwork from home. Having these tools in their toolboxes provides families with greater resilience and self-determination to endure challenging, unexpected situations.

  1. The Whole Family Approach builds trust between service providers and families, which boosts long-term outcomes.

The most important link between the families and the services provided by Familia Adelante are the Family Workers, staff members who serve as dedicated service provider liaisons and trusted life coaches for families. Family Workers now spend much of their time supporting families via phone, text, and video conferencing as everyone adjusts to drastically new circumstances. These ongoing connections emphasize to families that while our building may be closed, our services have not shut down. Family workers share information about where to access free or low-cost food, talk anxious parents through setting up online learning websites, and assess how families are managing the myriad new stressors of the pandemic.

Familia Adelante staff built a foundation of trust over many months of face-to-face engagement, workshops and classes. While families are accessing services now through almost-exclusively virtual mediums, that trust remains and allows the work to continue. Our collaboration agencies have a history of demonstrating to families that they matter to our staff and in the greater community; that consistency gives families the confidence to seek our support in  times of calm and uncertainty. A strong foundation of trust between families and agencies is inherent in the Whole Family Approach, and it has proven to improve long-term outcomes.

  1. The Whole Family Approach necessitates that collaborating agencies dedicate funding and human resources to effectively synchronize their efforts to support families.

When all in-person workshops were canceled due to the pandemic, the Qualitas of Life coordinator set up a WhatsApp group for families who had participated in money management courses or one-on-one financial counseling. The dedicated group gave participants the opportunity to share experiences and ideas, leaning on one another for support and reinforcing positive financial behaviors they had learned. Recently, a participant in the group asked the financial coordinator at Qualitas to connect her with Tanya Valle, a mindfulness practitioner who is one of our collaborators. The mother had previously participated in workshops that Tanya had led and hoped to practice some of the mindfulness techniques she had learned. Tanya was able to connect with the participant by phone and review de-stressing exercises and ways to maintain space for self-care.

This supportive, coordinated work to help one family feel grounded was possible thanks to the dedicated funding Familia Adelante receives to operate and provide services as a collaborative. This designated funding enables Mercy Center and the rest of the organizations within the collaborative to work with more families more deeply. It also provides agencies with infrastructure to share resources, organize priorities and think creatively and flexibly about how best to provide services. Collaboration of this scale and effectiveness rarely happens without the foresight to allocate such funding and human resources, like the support we receive from the Pascale Sykes Foundation.

Practicing the Whole Family Approach has created a larger support network for each agency in the Familia Adelante collaborative, and for the families with whom we work. When we pool together our resources, hold each other accountable to our goals, and nurture the human relationships that remind our families of their value, we support resilience in the face of adversity. Pandemic or no pandemic, working together enables all of us to better accomplish our mission and create meaningful, lasting change.