Family Services retooling to help families cope

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In the early 1900s, a Winston-Salem telephone operator named Annie Grogan started giving part of her paycheck to needy families in the community.

Co-workers and other individuals started pitching in and, in 1905, they formed the Association of Charities, which soon was joined by local churches.

Now known as Family Services, a private nonprofit, the agency serves about 5,000 families a year.

Operating with an annual budget of $8 million and roughly 150 employees, the agency provides services in the areas of safe relationships, family solutions, and child development.

And with the battered economy continuing to take its toll on families, Family Services is seeing growing demand for services, as well as a shift in the types of families looking for assistance.

“More families are struggling with underemployment, unemployment or lack of benefits,” says Al Renna, who has been the agency’s president and CEO since 1995.

“So we’re seeing more of the middle-class, working family needing counseling,” he says, “because they’re affected by the economic pressures while not necessarily having the insurance benefits that would support counseling for family and children’s issues.”

In the agency’s largest division, which focuses on child development, a Head Start program serves nearly 500 children ages three and four, while other privately-funded programs also serve young children.

The group’s safe-relationships division includes a battered-women’s shelter, owned by the Winston-Salem Foundation, that houses up to 34 women and children.

And the agency recently landed a $180,000 federal grant that will pay for subsidized rents in community apartments for up to 10 women at any given time, a new “transitional-housing” program that will give women time to “build up assets so they could take over more and more of their housing costs,” Renna says.

The safe-relationships division also provides services in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The agency’s family-services division provides family and individual counseling; helps people buy used cars so they can get to work and get their kids to child care; works with volunteers who phone frail elderly people every day to make sure they are okay; and assists with domestic adoptions, including “home studies” for families throughout the state wanting to adopt children from abroad.

In the last decade, the agency has made over $1 million worth of auto loans and, in the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2012, is on track to make auto loans worth nearly $250,000, Renna says.

“Our goal is not only to get their car but to help them build credit so they can get future loans for other things,” he says.

Family Services generates $5 million, or 63 percent of its overall budget, through federal funding for its child-development programs, mainly for Head Start.

The agency also generates $900,000 in state and county funds, just over $500,000 in counseling fees, roughly $1.2 million from United Way of Forsyth County and other local United Way affiliates, and roughly $250,000 through fundraising, mainly from individuals.

But with funders increasingly targeting and restricting the use of their support for specific programs, Renna says, Family Services lacks the flexibility to shift dollars to “wrap” services around emerging community needs.

The economic downturn has made it tough for working families with jobs that are low-paying but not low enough to qualify for subsidized day-care programs like Head Start, he says.

To better cope with the tough economic times, including ongoing changes in government funding and the impact of the economy on private funders, Family Services is reviewing its business model and looking for ways to bundle and market its services to corporations, medical providers and families in return for fees.

The types of fee-based services it is considering include employee assistance programs for small companies, training on workplace violence for corporations, and conflict-resolution training, child care, and specialized parenting training for individuals.

“Like many nonprofits, we’re in that difficult transition of trying to remain stable in an unstable world,” Renna says.

“The funding environment continues to be confusing and unpredictable,” he says. “So we’re trying to read it correctly, support the vital services we’re delivering, and at the same time prepare ourselves for a greater change that will lead us into new ventures that will ultimately make us more sustainable.”

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