Char-Em GSC finds success with Strengthening Families initiative

A new language being spoken in northern Michigan is making a big differences for families, service providers, advocates, business leaders and entire communities.

Tired of focusing on the negative influences affecting children and families and watching eyes glaze over at data on early childhood outcomes, staff at the Charleviox-Emmet-Northern Antrim Great Start Collaborative have taken a new approach to their work and how they message by incorporating a national research-based initiative called Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework into everything they do.

The 5 Protective Factors

Protective factors are attributes in individuals and families that, when present, alleviate or eliminate risk in families and increase their health and well- being. Protective Factors aid parents in finding community resources, positive support, and coping strategies.

  1. Parental resilience
  2. Social connections
  3. Knowledge of parenting and child development
  4. Concrete support in times of need
  5. Social and emotional competence of children

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The initiative aims to develop and enhance five characteristics, called protective factors, to help keep families strong and promote child development. Rather than categorizing families based on risk factors, the Strengthening Families model focuses on supporting the protective factors that aid all families when they experience setbacks. Collaborative staff first heard about it during a conference two years ago in Traverse City.

“We instantly gravitated toward that messaging,” said Maureen Hollocker, director of the Charleviox-Emmet-Northern Antrim Collaborative. “People sometimes tune out when you talk about early childhood systems. But Strengthening Families really grabs people in how it is presented. It gives families a way to look at themselves from a strength-based perspective and see where they
are strong and how to build that even more, instead of always being told where they are failing.”

The collaborative launched the “What Makes your Family Strong?” campaign in 2012 with a three-day training for families and providers. The Collaborative created a website for the campaign and distributed a Family Resource Guide to more than 10,000 residents. The collaborative also created posters detailing the five protective factors in easy-to-understand language designed to appeal to families.

Internally, the Collaborative worked to ensure that everything it does align with the five protective factors, including all materials, trainings, and outreach. For example, the collaborative hosts early childhood networking nights to bring providers and parents together for a free meal with child care provided to talk about the five factors and hear from an expert in the selected topic’s field. Topics appeal to a broad range of parents and are co-hosted by the Health Department of Northern Michigan, Great Start to Quality Resource Center, and the Charlevoix-Emmet ISD.

One result of the parent connections is the Great Start FreeCycle where parents can share items they no longer need such as sporting goods, clothing, baby items, toys, Halloween costumes and more. A spinoff of that program is the hugely popular Book FreeCycle.

“People started calling and said they had children’s books and asked if we wanted them. We started with about 600 books and offered them for free in four bins around the community,” Hollocker said. “The response was overwhelming!  Places started requesting bins and now they are all over the community.”

In less than two years, more than 18,000 books have been donated and throughout the region, costing the collaborative about $2,000. The gains, however, have been huge. More people in community know about the Great Start Collaborative.

Aiding the brand recognition are the posters on display throughout the region in doctor and dentist offices, libraries, schools and businesses. As a result, the Collaborative has seen an uptick in donations to their preschool scholarship program, which paid tuition for preschool for 19 children in 2011 and 44 in 2013.

The Collaborative’s work has been recognized by the National Center for the Study of Social Policy, which created the Strengthening Families initiative and called on the Charlevoix-Emmet-Northern Antrim Collaboratie to use the posters and other materials it created. 

Community partners also have embraced and integrated the initiative into their work.

“This has really given us a collective way to name the work we were doing anyway,” said Maggie Kromm, executive director of the Child Abuse Council of Charlevoix and Emmet counties. “Now we can all use the same language and understand each other.  Kromm organized her conference in April around the five protective factors, asking every speaker to address the factors so that the 200 nurses, educators, social workers, teen parents and foster parents could learn more about the initiative.

Hollocker,  one of  the conference speakers, said the greatest result is everyone is working together to improve the lives of children and families.

“People are feeling positive about their families and moving forward knowing they have the resources in our community to meet their family’s needs,” she said.

“It’s the work the collaborative has always done but just changing the way we frame it has really given it new legs and given it a language everyone can relate to,” she said. “It’s really opened doors for us and made a huge difference.”