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

Community Change

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The Kent Family Center

The Heart of a Community

(c) 2004 Carol Highsmith

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The Kent Family Center, a project of Shared Opportunity Service, Inc., serves as a second home for many of the families in Kent County, MD. Inside they gather for shared activities, programs and classes. Outside, a community garden grows a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits that become staple ingredients for community luncheons and dinners.

Since 1998, the Center has served the community with programs and services designed to strengthen families and improve their everyday lives. “Families are our focus,” says executive director Judy Linn. “We reach out to families in the community and try to meet their needs.” She explains, “Families come to us for help, support and sometimes just a safe place to congregate.”

Child care, job training, adult education, health and nutrition seminars and parenting education are among the services offered in the building. Families can visit the Center's child development room, where trained staff and volunteers teach developmentally appropriate play and communication. After-school programs serve a growing number of youth. Support groups take the form of knitting classes, scrapbooking and other activities suggested by parents. Home visitor staff travel to families who cannot make it to the building and staff pick up other families for activities and programs.

During their first visit to the Center, families develop a Family Partnership Agreement, targeting up to three goals and objectives. The Center staff work with them to meet the goals. “We support each other,” says Linn. “That's what families do.”

“The Kent Family Center made my family successful. That's good news, and I want to share it.”

Ronald Reed, staff member and Chestertown community member

Open to all families in Kent County, the Center serves mostly low-income families. In 2003 alone, the number of families served increased by 45 percent.

Home Away from Home

Ronald Reed learned about the Kent Family Center when his son was having trouble learning in school. The Center assessed his abilities, identified areas where he needed help and worked with him to improve.

Over time, Reed and his wife came to know and trust the Center's staff. When he needed a job, the staff found work for him on the construction crew that was, at the time, building the Center's new home.

“The Center is like a big family,” Reed says. “Everyone works together to help each other.” For Reed's family, help includes support for his children, both of whom have special needs, and a job for him as the building's maintenance worker. Reed also takes the Center's GED class.

“Before the Center opened there was nothing for families in Chestertown,” says Reed. “It provides an alternative to the streets, gives kids something to do and makes the community nicer.”

Today, Reed lives only a few blocks from the Center he helped build and considers it his home away from home. He loves to tell others in the community about his experiences. “It helped me get a job, helped with my family's education,” he says. “And it can help others too.”

(c) 2004 Carol Highsmith

Media usage: Download high-resolution photo.

Cultivating Change

The Kent Family Center garden grows more than fruits and vegetables; it nurtures the community itself.

Kent County has long divided along racial and economic lines. “Shared responsibility for the garden helps us bring together people who have inherited generational prejudices,” says executive director Judy H. Linn. Gardeners from diverse backgrounds stand side by side, tending to crops that include tomatoes, herbs, watermelon and collard greens. These same people gather with staff, volunteers and visitors at the Center's weekly luncheons and periodic neighborhood suppers, prepared with the garden's harvest.

“We believe the community is only as strong as the families that live in it, and we are building a strong community one family at a time.”

Judy H. Linn
Executive Director

The garden also serves as a springboard for lessons about nutrition and ways to save money. “We cook healthy meals with foods from the garden,” explains Linn. During financial-planning workshops, families compare the cost and nutritional value of the meals to packaged meals. “The healthy meals always win,” Linn says.

For more information, see www.kentfamilycenter.org.