Strengthening families leads to lifelong success

This article was also published in the October 07, 2015 edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Island Voices section (Subscritpion Required)

Whether from the perspective of providing help or providing housing, the critical state of homelessness in Hawai‘i is an issue that affects our entire community. Helping families to not only survive but thrive goes well beyond providing basic needs and shelter, but it starts there as well. A recently published study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has added to the mounting evidence that growing up in severe poverty affects the way children’s brains develop, potentially putting them at lifelong disadvantage. The study found that the parts of the brain tied to academic performance were 8 percent to 10 percent smaller for children who grow up in very poor households.

The study, published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Pediatrics, combined the expertise of neuroscientists and economists and suggests that poverty affects parts of the brain tied to self-control, attention, planning and other traits important for success in school. The children often receive less nurturing from parents and live in environments characterized by increased stress from crowded housing, instability, poor nutrition, limited stimulation and greater exposure to violence.

As a nonprofit organization, Child & Family Service (CFS) works to strengthen thousands of families in Hawai‘i each year, providing them the tools to change their lives for the better and to sustain those changes for the long term. From crisis hotlines for families affected by domestic violence, to Healthy Families programs that reduce the potential for neglect and abuse, we recognize that families, especially children who are most vulnerable, cannot move beyond survival unless their basic needs are met.

Our family centers — also known as Neighborhood Places, on O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, Maui, and Hawai‘i island — are one-stop shops where families often come for basic supplies such as clothing and diapers but will also find nurturing parenting classes, learn financial and independent living skills and gain access to a wide range of community resources available to them. Experience has taught us that families make tremendous strides when they are able to focus their energies, talents and hopes beyond daily survival.

According to the state’s annual Point-in-Time Count, nearly half of those considered homeless were part of families, and a recent state survey indicated that more than 40 percent of the people who had been living in a homeless encampment in Honolulu’s Kakaako district were families. While we tend to characterize homelessness as a problem in itself, it is often a symptom with an underlying cause that affects the whole family, such as poverty, mental illness, substance abuse or domestic violence. Addressing the root causes of homelessness takes a community effort, and no single organization can provide all the services a family needs to overcome poverty.

CFS recently launched a partnership with Goodwill Industries of Hawaii called Transition to Success, a nationally recognized model designed to move those in poverty toward self-sufficiency. We are piloting the program on Maui and Kaua‘i at our family center locations. CFS will provide a full range of family strengthening services, and Goodwill will provide job training and placement opportunities.

Programs like Transition to Success, in addition to dozens of vital services provided by many community nonprofits across the state, work to help families move toward self-sufficiency. Indicators of success include the ability to earn income and manage money, as well as to provide care for their dependents, and access food and shelter.

As Nelson Mandela said, “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid — it was man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”

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