Lee Family Connection coordinator Patsy Shirley addresses the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)
ALBANY —Patsy Shirley, coordinator for Lee Family Connection, said the organization is striving to improve the lives of families in Lee County.
Started along with the Statewide Georgia Family Connection initiative in 1991 by then Gov. Zell Miller, Lee Family Connections is a community based collaborative that brings together community partners to develop, implement and evaluate ways to handle challenges facing county children and families.
According to Shirley, Georgia’s Family Connection program is the only one like it the country and has become an important part of many communities throughout the state, including Lee County.
“We were the beginning of it 23 years ago,” said Shirley “Gov. Zell Miller put in place Family Connections and we are actually a line item on the Georgia State budget that funds our grant and we’ve been leading the pack. We’re the only one in the nation that has a statewide collaborative network. Other states have tried to replicate our work, they’ve actually asked for input from us, but nobody’s actually been successful in duplicating our work.”
Part of what makes the Lee Family Connection work, Shirley said, is that it is a true collaborative effort within the community where civic leaders, citizens, teachers, businesses and anyone else who wants to get involved, can help determine how state funds are spent and what projects family connection will focus on.
“Anybody can join a collaborative in the communities they live in,” said Shirley. “If you have a desire to impact results for your families or your children, you need to be a part of a collaborative. Our collaborative is made up of different people from the community. The collaborative is open to anyone who has a desire to make an impact on their families.
“One thing I like about Family Connection is every county gets the same amount of dollars. Just because Atlanta has bigger counties and more people they don’t get more money than we get. Every county gets the same amount of dollars from the state general assembly. We decide locally how we’re going to spend our money. That’s a good thing.”
Currently, Lee Family Connection is hard at work on two different initiatives within the county, improving graduation rates and helping children and families deal with the threat of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
By working with the Lee County government and school system, the collaborative is able to support various programs that feed into its larger initiatives.
For example, as part of the collaborative’s efforts to improve graduation rates, Lee Family Connection assists with mentoring programs at the middle and high schools designed to help students with social and leadership skills.
One such program is the Minority Mentoring Debutante program at the high school which pairs qualified female minority juniors and seniors with minority leaders within the community to help gain leadership skills.
To date, Shirley said, every girl who has gone through the program has successfully graduated from high school and either attended college, technical school or gone into a military career.
Another mentoring program that the collaborative is hoping to get started this year is a community-supported mentoring program that will put students together with people in the community for guidance and support.
“The school system has a lot of great mentoring programs within the school; the teachers are mentoring students, the students are mentoring students, but one thing we lack is the community coming in and mentoring students,” Shirley said. “So right now we have an advisory board in place, we’re working on policies and procedures and we’re looking to implement in 2014.”
Also helping prepare children for high school graduation is a program the collaborative does in conjunction with Certified Literate Community Program (CLCP) that provides every third grade student in the county with their own dictionary.
“One thing that Family Connection does in Lee County every year, every third grader gets their own dictionary,” said Shirley. “And that’s something that Family Connection partners with the CLCP to make sure we get all the funding in place for that.”
Many of the mentoring programs and other initiatives that support family connection’s efforts to improve graduation rates also help in the collaborative’s other main initiative of trying to curb teen alcohol, tobacco and other drug use.
According to surveys conducted with Lee County students between sixth and twelfth grade, use of alcohol among teenagers continues to be a problem. In 2013 when 2,217 students were asked about the use of alcohol, 460 students, or 20.7 percent, admitted to using alcohol within the 30 days of taking the survey, something that raised alarm with Lee Family Connection.
“That’s a cause of alarm for us, that’s a concern,” Shirley said. “That’s an issue for us and something we want to address. We have different programs and activities that we do to try to encourage kids not to drink alcohol.”
One such program being employed to help with that issue is the collaborative’s Teen Maze, a live simulator where teenagers choose choices randomly to see what the consequences. For example a teen might draw the choice to drink and drive after graduation which leads to their death. To make the simulation real, a casket is on site to help create impact with the teenagers.
Through its involvement with a host of programs like those mentioned, Shirley said, the collaborative feels it is truly able to make a positive impact on the community and execute its mission of working to better the lives of Lee County children and families.
“Our bottom line goal is to improve results for families and children within our community,” Shirley said.
Other projects and programs supported by Lee Family Connection include Lee County WHIZ Kids, Backpack Blessings, school career and health fairs, the Lee County School System’s “Why Am I Tempted” (WAIT) abstinence program, Lee County High School’s Youth Council and Lee County’s Back to School Bash.
Anyone wanting to learn more about Lee Family Connection and its programs can visit the collaborative’s website lee.gafcp.org.