The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Helping vulnerable kids & families succeed

Community Change

share post tweet Email Print

Fatima Family Center

Built For Families, By Families

Helen Barnett credits Fatima Family Center with more than just getting her off welfare. She traces her confidence, self-esteem, and improvements in her relationship with her son back to the day when she discovered Fatima through a work experience program offered in her Cleveland neighborhood.

"I walked down the hill, saying to myself over and over, 'I can't believe I'm going to spend 30 hours a week in this little blue building,'" she says. Little did she know that just four years later, she'd still be coming to Fatima to work - although by this time, Fatima had a new building and Barnett had become a new person.

"They recognized potential in me that I hadn't seen in myself," says Barnett, who now works full-time for Fatima overseeing the after-school program. "I got my GED here. I've even taken some college classes. I got my first paycheck and opened my first checking account."

A single mother, Barnett also noticed changes in her teenage son, Christopher. "Before I started coming here," she says, "I spent a lot of time at his school. He was misbehaving, acting out. Once I started doing something with my life, he started to do better, too." Christopher also became involved at Fatima through the Maximum Youth program, which helps teenagers who hold down jobs keep up with their school work.

A Bridge to Success and Stability

According to Fatima Director LaJean Ray-McNair, the Barnetts are examples of how the right support and services can transform a family. "There are so many talented people and strong families here in our community," she says. "We're just trying to enhance what is already here, provide a bridge to success and stability."

Established in 1973 by Catholic Charities and the Diocese of Cleveland as an outreach ministry of Our Lady of Fatima Church, the Family Center serves a neighborhood known as Hough. Like many urban neighborhoods, Hough experienced great transitions during the 1970s and 1980s. Shifting populations, out-migration, unemployment, and disinvestment adversely impacted the neighborhood.

No one realized the resources, supports, and strong families we had here," says Ray-McNair, who lives in Hough. "This is an incredibly asset-rich community. We're right across the street from League Park, where the Cleveland Indians and, historically, the Negro League, played. The city's African-American Museum is here. The neighborhood has a long history of home ownership. There are 25 other agencies here to share resources with, to coordinate programs, and collaborate initiatives."

Even with these resources, Ray-McNair sees the neighborhood's greatest assets as the people who live there. "We have a great deal of respect for the families in the neighborhood," she says. "Before we built our new, intergenerational facility, we went around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and asking people what they wanted to see. The result is a center that was built by Hough itself."

A Place for Families

As a result, the new complex offers an array of practical help and serves as a gathering spot for the neighborhood. Services include Head Start; afterschool sessions; tutoring; athletics; summer camp; college tours; emergency and transitional services; health counseling; legal services; pre-employment initiatives; and health, education, and recreational activities for older adults.

"Families told us that they had difficulty doing their banking because they did not have access to an automated teller machine (ATM)," says Ray-McNair. "We installed an ATM in the center. It's the only one in the neighborhood."

In cooler weather, families love to gather around the wood-burning fireplace in Fatima's family room. In the warmer weather, people of all ages - from children to grandparents - work in the intergenerational garden.

Spirit, Energy, and Purpose

Reflecting on the contributions that Fatima has made to the families of Hough, LaJean Ray-McNair remembers loaning the center's van to a mother who was taking her daughter off to college. And then there was the woman - a grandmother - who passed her GED at age 70 with help she received at Fatima.

"Whether we were working out of a four-room place or a $4 million facility, there's a spirit and an energy here that comes from the people we serve," she says.

Helen Barnett agrees. "Fatima made a huge difference in my life," she says. "Now I feel that I have a purpose and that I can make a difference in someone else's life."

Carol Highsmith