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

Community Change

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The Family Center of the Cumberland YMCA

Embracing Young Families

(c) 2004 Peter Olson

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Cumberland, Maryland once bustled with opportunity as the second largest city in the state. Then manufacturers moved out, the railroad cut service, and families found it hard to prosper in Allegany County. In the 1990s, the Cumberland YMCA opened the Family Center to place special focus on the needs of young families seeking to build better futures for themselves and their children.

Serving families with children from birth through age three, the Center works with parents and children together in early childhood development programs that reinforce parenting skills. GED classes, computer courses and administrative jobs at the Center give parents work experience and build their resumes. Activities developed by parents, such as field trips to pick pumpkins, round out family strengthening programs.

Teen mothers can come to the Center to catch up on the academics they missed. When they complete the Center's curriculum, they are ready to return to school at the same level as their peers. In the meantime, their children join playmates who come to the Center from all parts of the community. Staff also make home visits to isolated rural families to give them parenting support and encourage them to come to the Center.

"We are making an impact on our community," says Roberta Bisignano, the Center's director. She points to the work the Center has done with teenage mothers as one example. "At first, many were ambivalent about being mothers. After learning about parenting and child development, they are more comfortable and enjoy being with their children."

"The Family Center has improved my life and life for my children. The staff pushed me to do and be more than I ever imagined I could."

Gabrielle Peterson, Family Center participant since 2001

Taking the Extra Step

Gabrielle Peterson loves the moment when she and her daughters walk through the front door of the Family Center and her two-and-half-year-old excitedly yells out the names of staff. "They are like family," Peterson says of the people who helped her transition from high school student to mother of two.

(c) 2004 Peter Olson

Media usage: Download high-
resolution photo.

Peterson has been visiting the Center since finding out she was pregnant with her first child three years ago. Then in high school, Peterson went for parenting classes and the alternative education program. She finished high school at the Center while her daughter went to child care. "Thanks to the Center, I am more patient now," Peterson says. "I know how to listen and respond appropriately to my kids." Along with encouraging her to get her diploma, the staff supported her as she found an apartment. They are now helping her find a job and work towards college.

Today, Peterson visits the Center twice a week for activities and support, including knitting lessons with older women who give her advice and tips for parenting. Her daughters attend preschool at the Center.

"The Family Center is amazing," says Peterson. "They push for what's needed. If they can't provide a service, they'll find someone who can. They always take the extra step to find help."

A Community Experience

"With the Family Center, residential housing, and partnerships with area agencies, the Cumberland YMCA is able to reach many families and provide services to meet their diverse needs."

Jeff Collen
Executive Director

A mainstay of Allegany County for over a century, the Cumberland YMCA embraces families from all parts of the community and grounds them in common experience. Homeless families can live for up to two years in eleven residential apartments at the YMCA Gilchrist Center, while staff help them develop the network of supports that will allow them to maintain a home. At the Riverside Recreational Center, a host of sports and activities draw families from every neighborhood. Staff encourage families served by the Family Center and living in the apartments to join families from all over the region in other YMCA programs and activities. "This gives many families exposure to activities they might not otherwise have," says Brian Held, executive director of the Gilchrist Center.

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