BY AMANDA L. COBB AND STEPHANIE NORTON
The family voice and leadership stars have been aligning over North Texas! Throughout the last two years we have experienced much progress in the area of family leadership and we could not be more excited. Our Help Me Grow (HMG) North Texas Family Advisory Council has been bringing the much-needed family voice to the HMG table over the last 2 years and this group is shining bright in so many ways.
Many attempts have been made through our system of care efforts over the last 20 years to get “the stars aligned” for organized family voice and leadership, but as grants and programs have come and gone, the progress did not sustain.
Why are the family leadership stars aligning for us now?
We often scratch our heads in reflection of that question but honestly implementation of the HMG Model has given our community the infrastructure, strategies, and support to implement family leadership for the long-term. The HMG Model has given us the tools to develop strong cross-system partnerships and new champions across our large region to enhance the recruitment and development of a family leadership program. Becoming a HMG affiliate has also been vital to our family leadership efforts by opening new doors of funding streams for us to have the flexible funding needed for family partners’ compensation, technical assistance, team building, and translation/interpretation.
And believe it or not, COVID actually helped as well. Because we recruited and implemented our HMG Family Advisory Council during COVID, we had to use a virtual format, but this in fact has seemed to help our family partners be more involved and with a lot less hassle. For the most part, we still meet virtually now and we love seeing our family partners on camera in their homes with children in their laps and other family members behind them peeking in occasionally as well.
These seven diverse family members from across North Texas are the original family members chosen in October 2021 from our initial call to build a Family Advisory Council. We had 37 family members apply and these dynamic seven each stood out for their unique perspective and strengths they bring to the table. Our family partners were immediately connected to our Early Childhood Wellness Council and started attending our HMG subcommittee meetings.
In January 2022, the Council began meeting virtually twice a month to build rapport with one another and provide input as a group to guide our work. Since then, they have truly grown as a family themselves and have been shining bright despite only meeting virtually. The family partners started this work by first creating their own mission statement that is shared at the start of each meeting in both English and Spanish:
“The Family Advisory Council of Help Me Grow North Texas is a group of diverse parents and caregivers from across the region who collaborate with staff and community to co-create, co-educate, and advocate to help keep families strong in our communities.”
“El Consejo Asesor Familiar de Help Me Grow North Texas es un grupo diverso de padres y cuidadores de toda la región, que colaboran con personal de la organización y la comunidad para co-crear, co-educar, y abogar para ayudar a mantener a las familias fuertes en nuestras comunidades.”
The HMG North Texas Family Advisory Council is a passionate group committed to making a difference in the lives of families.
They have evolved from a group led by staff to being a parent-led organization, with each member playing a vital role within the group. They now have two co-chairs – one English speaking and the other bilingual – as well as a training advisor, secretary, treasurer, community events coordinator, and community alignment coordinator. The Family Advisory Council brainstormed, created, and voted on defined roles and who was the best fit for each role. They had open, candid, and sometimes hard conversations to create the unique structure within the Council. They are also creating a guidance document for future members as well as to share with other HMG Family Advisory Councils just beginning. They strive to be the model for others to follow.
At each meeting family partners volunteer to take on roles to help build rapport, co-create the session, and lead the team along with our co-chairs. We begin the meetings with a reminder of our mission statement and a community-builder chosen by a family member – these are questions or activities that help us to get to know each other better and share our experiences. Sometimes the community-builder is fun and silly (what’s your most used emoji?) and other times more goal oriented (what’s your greatest success as children and as parents?). Learning something new about each other each meeting has been especially helpful in bonding the group since we meet virtually.
We end our meetings with a closing connection so we can reflect on our experience together. These help tie us together through a quote to leave us on a positive trajectory till we meet again, a moment of reflection about the meeting, or a positive action to move forward in our work. This has built trust, rapport, and confidence within the group. This heightened confidence is demonstrated through increased engagement and enthusiasm in sharing their expertise and perspectives in our subcommittee and coalition meetings. To help further build rapport, the Council started having quarterly in-person team-building events that alternate between just the core group and events that include members’ families. The Council has had a bowling and game day event including whole families and have had a dinner with team building and sharing about our challenges with childcare as a core group. The Council is currently planning its next full family team-building event.
Our Family Advisory Council brings so much added value to our HMG work, as family voice and leadership is a critical commitment and always kept at the forefront. Family partners choose which subcommittee they participate in based on their own strengths and passions and serve as active members on each of our five decision-making HMG subcommittees.
At every subcommittee meeting, family partners are asked to share insight, ideas, and give feedback as well bridge the work of the Family Advisory Council. In July 2022, each subcommittee added a goal of Family Engagement, Voice, and Leadership to their strategic plans for the year. The Council helps guide us to ensure we are using family friendly language and Spanish translation for all marketing materials in written and audio visual formats. They have not only participated in outreach, but have created their own materials and found events to share with other families.
Our family partners have made a large impact across our region. They began by creating professional development for themselves once a month. They discuss, vote on, co-create, and present a different topic of interest each month. The Council has identified a list of topics to learn more about and share with other parent organizations they are a part of. Topics have ranged from seizure first aid to fathers and family engagement and even domestic violence and its impact on children. When our family partners shared the domestic violence training with our subcommittees, it brought to light a need for sharing with others in our community. Our Provider Support and Training subcommittee then partnered with the Council to create a virtual domestic violence training for our community. One of our family partners shared her lived experience as a survivor and the impact it has had on her children based on their individual experiences at the ages they witnessed the abuse. The family partners also created a flier of local and national resources for victims and survivors of domestic violence that was shared with the community. The Council connected with each resource and confirmed what types of support were offered, from housing/shelter to accommodations for special needs, and even if they allowed pets. It was definitely a bright moment for our Family Advisory Council to see the seed they planted in their own meetings grow and spread to the community.
Our Family Advisory Council also played a large role in creating our first Annual Regional Family Leadership Summit. Our HMG subcommittees and one of our partner organizations were looking for ways to have even more family voice beyond our HMG Family Advisory Council.
The National Center of Families Learning connected us with our goals and all three of us joined forces to create a space for families to connect, learn from each other, learn from our experts in the early childhood space, and provide feedback and voice in our work to support families across North Texas. Five parents across North Texas were invited to provide input and be the creators of this first-of-many family convening. They decided on the theme, agenda, and speakers for the event. One of our Family Advisory Council members was even chosen as a presenter to share his expertise on building social emotional skills as part of his work and passion to engage fathers and families. In addition to learning about their own strengths, their role in developmental promotion, and how to obtain resources, family partners were also able to share their challenges around childcare in a focus group. This input has been critical as we develop a system to provide face to face navigation for families in the childcare space. We are looking forward to hosting our second Regional Family Leadership Summit next April.
We believe one of the greatest reasons for the success of our group is that they truly feel heard and valued. While we do provide compensation at $25/hour with a prepaid gift card, their passion and commitment far transcends the monetary compensation. They see their voice and input put into practice and that speaks volumes for them as individuals and as a group.
So as we say here in Texas, “The stars at night are big and bright”, and we think the stars here on the ground are our HMG Family Partners!
Amanda L. Cobb, M.ED is the Child and Family Services Community Development Director, Family Engagement and Educational Supports at My Health My Resources of Tarrant County
Stephanie Norton, LCSW is the Senior Director of Help Me Grow-Help Me Thrive at My Health My Resources of Tarrant County