Breaking the culture of poverty and overcoming all of its associated challenges and barriers is incredibly difficult. In Baltimore, alarming incidences of homicide, poor education performance and high incarceration rates hamper hard-working families who strive for a better life. But at the Center for Urban Families (CFUF), a Baltimore-based organization dedicated to strengthening families, parents are learning how to beat the odds for themselves and their children.
“Here, parents can understand that even in the context of Baltimore, you can learn the skills to raise your child and care for your family,” said Joseph Jones, CFUF founder and president. “We say to young men and women: these are your circumstances when you walk in the door, but we are here to change your trajectory. We are going to support and work with you to get you and your family to a successful place.”
CFUF, located in the heart of some of the city’s most troubled areas, is taking an integrated approach to addressing those complex circumstances. The organization focuses on helping families foster strong relationships between parents and their children along with creating opportunities and support for families to achieve economic and financial security. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and CFUF believe that when parents are successful in both aspects of their lives, they are able to build a strong family foundation.
To help put families on a path to success, CFUF offers its Couples Advancing Together (CAT) program, which provides parents with training and support to build healthy relationships and improve their economic circumstances. CFUF strongly encourages both parents to play an active role in raising their children.
“The women in our community are losing their sons, husbands and uncles to incarceration, homicides and other circumstances,” Jones said. “We can’t have women bear all of the burden. We have created a space here at CFUF where men can play a strong complementary role in their family.”
Once parents learn how to communicate and make joint decisions for the family, they are given access to resources to help them access well-paying jobs, develop healthy financial habits, save for their family’s future and achieve economic security.
CAT offers parents a six-week, twelve-session program that includes home visits and long-term follow-up after completion. CFUF facilitators guide parents through a learner-centered program in a positive and respectful environment that allows couples to share their experiences with their peers. CFUF assists couples with developing the family and career goals needed to strengthen their relationships, compete in the job market and develop family budgets. To ensure participation, CFUF provides transportation assistance, child care and dinner for parents and their children.
For Kevin Thomas, 33, CAT has helped motivate him to be a better person and embrace his role and responsibilities as a father. Growing up without a stable father figure in his own life, Thomas struggled. He got his first job at 27, but when he was 28, he was convicted of a federal offense and sent to prison. Thomas knew that getting on the right track would only become harder, but with a baby on the way, he was motivated. When Thomas got out of prison, he and his partner, Dawnte Blake, enrolled in the CAT program.
“I knew I had to rebuild my way of thinking,” Thomas said. “It’s hard to be a father, if you don’t have one. At a point in time, my father thought that caring for me would be just giving money, but what I craved was time. Maybe if someone was there for me in that way, I wouldn’t have made some of the choices that I did.”
Through CAT, Thomas said he learned the importance of managing a healthy relationship with Blake. CAT facilitators taught them communication skills to address issues without escalating to an argument, and then how to arrive at a solution. Thomas said he and Blake want to provide a model relationship for their 6-year-old son, Tyson, and have him feel that he is in a safe and caring environment. Further, they are planning their future as a family. Thomas and Blake have developed a financial plan to get out of debt, start saving and eventually buy a home.
“I have come a long way. I feel that I’m blessed to still be here and on my way up,” Thomas said. “All the people at the Center for Urban Families are helping people who wouldn’t have had a chance, if you had to figure this all out by yourself.”
CFUF’s work aligns with the Kellogg Foundation’s objective to ensure that all children are raised in secure families. WKKF’s work is guided by a commitment to helping both children and families simultaneously, so parents can ensure their children are ready to learn and succeed in school and life. Projects like the CAT program can serve as a promising two-generation model that could be used to improve the employment and financial status of families.
“We take an integrated approach to our work that supports all aspects of a child’s development,” said Loren Harris, WKKF director of family economic security. “The work being done at CFUF and through the CAT program exemplifies our desire to partner with community-led organizations that are focused on empowering families and affecting meaningful change.”
Simone Madden and Thomas Carroll, graduates of the CAT program, said they apply both the relationship and financial skills they learned in class to their everyday lives as they raise their 2-year-old son Mason.
Long work days, financial stress and everyday responsibilities sometimes take a toll on Madden and Carroll and their relationship. Also, they both grew up in homes where their fathers were not present, making much of their journey as a family uncharted territory.“Our goal is to build a stable home and loving family for Mason, so he has a foundation to stand on,” Carroll said. “The CAT program is not a one-year program, it’s a life program. We had a big learning curve, and some things were hard to grasp, but with encouragement and support from everyone at the Center for Urban Families, we have grown so much – individually and as a family.”