When she and her daughter first arrived at the Family Connections program, "Erin and I didn’t really want to be here," said Ashburn resident Laurie Harrison. They decided they would at least stay for the pizza that was to be offered during the session’s break time. However, her daughter, Erin Meadows, decided to stay until the meeting’s end after all.
That was almost a year ago. Meadows now volunteers two nights a week at the program, which held an open house at its new location in a recently built county complex in Ashburn last Wednesday, Dec. 5. The mother and daughter also participate in its alumni program. "I think more people should learn about it, because it’s helped us tremendously," said Harrison.
Funded by the county’s Department of Family Services, the program is intended for families with children ages 12 to 17 who are exhibiting extreme behavior problems, such as severe disrespect, running away, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, failing grades, violence or suicidal thoughts. It costs a one-time fee of $40.
About 35 people, including staff, parents and teens, milled around the center Wednesday evening, chatting and snacking on deli platters as more clients trickled in from the snowy streets. Speeches were delivered and longtime volunteers were recognized.
"It’s not clinical, what we do here," John Walker, program manager, told the crowd. "It’s based on what we’ve heard from families and teens."
HARRISON SAID she initially brought her daughter to the program because Meadows, a sophomore at Broad Run High School, was exhibiting behaviors like lying, ignoring schoolwork and being disrespectful. In the next weeks, said Harrison, "I found that there were a lot of other issues."
Meadows said she decided to stay because she bonded with the teen volunteers. After she and her mother completed the initial seven-week session, she said, their home life was "a bit better, but you could tell we weren’t ready to let go of the program." She said she has since stopped skipping school and arguing with her mother and has now been clean from drugs and alcohol for almost 60 days. "I just feel like I can’t help other people if I’m not helping myself," said Meadows.
She said the program helped her family by addressing problems one at a time. "They tackle the different things that can build up and lead to arguing."
"We talk a lot about button pushing and how to diffuse it," said Lauren Shettler, who has worked as a Family Connections counselor for more than two years. She said families also work on a "family agreement" that incorporates input from the teens, as well as the parents, regarding rules and consequences, and she added that the program also includes a piece on nurturing behaviors, such as taking special outings and giving compliments. After the seven-week program, family counseling is offered, as is the alumni club, which meets once a week.
Shettler said working with troubled teens "can be hard, but it’s fun and really rewarding, especially when you see parents and a kid turn a corner." Of the standard group of nine or 10 families, an average of three or four will continue with family counseling and two or three will show up at the alumni club, she said. "Those that take advantage of everything that’s offered come out on the other end feeling pretty good about their family." She also noted that the families in the program often become a support network for each other. "Sometimes, they don’t call us. They call each other. I think that’s one of the best parts," said Shettler.
Those who complete the initial seven weeks can also interview to become volunteers. Teens are interviewed by current teen volunteers and parents are interviewed by parent volunteers and staff.
"It doesn’t really take away the teen issues they face. But it makes it so you can discuss them to solve them," said Harrison. She said the program had taken the tension out of her household and given her fresh perspectives on the difficulties of raising a teenager. "I wouldn’t have been able to make it through this last year without their support," she said. "I don’t think Erin would have either."
THE FIRST TIME Justin Garrett attended the program, he refused to get out of the car for the opening half of the meeting, he said. Garrett, a junior at the Douglass School, had been advised by his attorney to enroll in the program before he appeared in court on destruction of property and breaking and entering charges.
However, he said he found himself enjoying talking to other teens who were dealing with the same issues he was. "It was one of those things I didn’t even realize consciously," he said, explaining that he had begun to notice that he was in a better mood after a group session. "It gave me a chance to vent."
Garrett, too, went on to become a volunteer. He said he had since managed to stay out of trouble and complete his year of probation. "Things aren’t perfect now, but they’re definitely a lot better," he said. "There’s less stress and less fighting in the home."
Walker said the program’s success rests in large part on the input of the families who attend and the efforts of those who volunteer. "It’s the only program in the country that actually runs on teen and parent volunteers," he said.
A resident of Delaware, Walker was brought in by the county on a consulting basis in 2002 to help jump-start the program, which was then about a year old. At the time, he said the program was being run by professionals and was losing three or four families over the course of each seven-week session. Since it adopted the volunteer-run approach, he said, it is rare that a family leaves before the seven weeks are up.
He said the teen volunteers in particular lend credibility to the program and draw in other teens. "If I’m going to talk to them, I’m this 41-year-old guy who looks clueless," said Walker. However, he said, "If you’ve got a cute guy talking to an angry girl, she’s more likely to listen. We take advantage of that."
Since taking over as the program manager, Walker spends three days a week in Loudoun, running the program, and the rest of his time at his home in Delaware. He said the constant traveling is worth the reward. "I love this job. It’s my absolute dream job."