20 Family Advocates: Non-profits making a difference in OKC
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The staff at Norman’s Center for Children & Families has worked tirelessly for almost 50 years to heal children wounded by relationship trauma, empower youth to reach their full potential and strengthen families struggling through parenting challenges. What began in 1969 as a shelter for youth awaiting foster care placements has grown into a non-profit providing services like counseling, after-school programming and parenting education.
The organization’s CEO Brandon Brooks recalled his own loving home growing up, but said no amount of love could protect him from adverse experiences.
“When I look into the faces of the children who come in for counseling or join us in the evening for the Boys & Girls Club of Norman,” he said, “I see familiar faces that take me back to my own childhood and motivate me to ensure we are providing the highest quality service and care to our clients.”
And although the organization has helped countless families through challenges, Brooks said there’s still a long way to go in meeting the needs of local kids.
“The metro has made transformative improvements to enhance the quality of life for so many Oklahomans, yet so many still struggle to overcome life’s challenges,” he said. “Concentrated investments in services to help struggling families triumph over abuse and neglect, addiction, poverty, etc. would have lasting impacts on the metro.
This is one of the longest serving nonprofits in Oklahoma City, beginning as a home for neglected boys and girls in 1907. In fact, the organization’s CEO Jim Priest noted Sunbeam was providing counseling before the Department of Health even existed and helping local kids before there was a Department of Human Services.
Now, in an era where most non-profits serve specific niches, Priest said he’s proud to represent an organization that takes a holistic approach to all family needs, from infants to the elderly.
Services provided by Sunbeam range from foster home recruitment and infant mental health to education opportunities for young moms and financial help for grandparents raising grandchildren. And while helping so many different people and addressing so many local issues can seem overwhelming, Priest believes everyone should be playing a role in making Oklahoma City a better place for all.
“The thing that’s always on my mind, particularly this year, is how important it is for everyone in the community to lean in with the non-profit community,” Priest said. “Some people have a tendency to say, ‘well, the church will take care of it or the government will take care of it.’ But it’s really a community responsibility to help those in need. People can do that with Sunbeam or the other agencies by volunteering or donating. More than ever we need people to lean in.”
12. Fields & Futures
Statistics show that OKCPS students who play sports are more likely to graduate and have a higher GPA. So besides all the other physical and personal benefits to athletics, they’re a proven motivator to get a kid to school and keep them more focused on attendance and grades. With this knowledge, Fields & Futures Founder Tim McLaughlin is determined to make sure dilapidated athletic facilities or poorly-funded programs are never a barrier to sports involvement for local kids.
Tim and his wife Liz first had a vision for Fields & Futures when they saw the Jefferson Middle School athletic field in 2011.
“How children played on it was beyond me,” Tim said. “We quickly realized it was the rule rather than the exception. Of 42 district athletic fields, very few were playable, yet kids practiced on them and had no reason to believe things would ever get better.”
He decided to rebuild that field and immediately saw an impact in school participation that inspired him to build more. Fields & Futures has completed 20 athletic fields at seven school sites and two more fields are under construction now.
“For the students and families served by Oklahoma City Public Schools, a renovated school campus sends a loud message saying, ‘We care about you,’” he said. “Each new athletic field provides a safe place to play, a place where friendships are formed, a place where kids learn important life lessons outside the classroom.”
What parent doesn’t want their child to have increased self-confidence, greater decision-making skills and an improved ability to express feelings? These are all proven results of involvement in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma, a mentorship program that matches positive role models with at-risk children.
Traditionally, children have opportunities for connection with adults at home and in the classroom. But with local public school classroom sizes bigger than ever before and one in 10 Oklahoma kids having a parent incarcerated, mentorship is more important than ever before. Big Brothers Big Sisters has a proven model of one-on-one mentoring that makes a big impact.
“We all know it takes a village,” said Oklahoma City Area Director Jacquelyn Edwards, “and our caring, safe, dependable mentors are here to be part of your child’s village.”
Ninety-two percent of the “Littles” mentored through Big Brothers Big Sisters showed an increase in academic performance in 2017, Edwards reported, just one of many ways the organization is filling the gaps left by family and education challenges.
The largest non-profit agency in Oklahoma is the Latino Community Development Agency, established in 1991 to meet the needs of the state’s growing Latino population. Today, the organization offers more than 20 programs focusing on education, health and wellness and prevention and treatment.
The organization’s Development Director Mario Medrano was actually a beneficiary of the organization before he became involved.
“What drew me to the mission was the simple fact that it focuses on the major needs of our Latino community in Oklahoma,” he said. “I benefited from our Education Programs while going to high school, so I understand the value of the work our agency does and the impact it has in our community.”
The organization’s programs range from early childhood education and scholarships for high school seniors to child abuse prevention initiatives and health and wellness classes. The organization served locals through 114,000 encounters last year alone and they’re hoping to expand services.
“Oklahoma is becoming more diverse in many aspects by the day,” Medrano said, “and I feel that we can do a better job at embracing our differences instead of using them to create division in our communities.”
Talking with a child through a struggle with substance abuse can be a lonely experience for parents. But Parents Helping Parents, Inc.
Executive Director Becky O’Dell believes it doesn’t have to be. The non-profit was established in 2001 to help parents and caregivers of children of any age suffering from substance use disorder.
“I think they offer hope, they offer support, they offer their knowledge because they came through it,” she said of the parents who help others through the non-profit. “They offer that shared experience.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month the country’s opioid epidemic is accelerating, making the need for organizations like Parents Helping Parents more vital than ever. O’Dell feels passionately that everyone in Oklahoma City continue to increase awareness about addiction. The organization serves local parents through peer coaching, chapter meetings, parent phone lines and more.
“Make it okay to talk about this,” she said. “Make it okay for families to not feel ashamed.”
The YMCA is known nationwide as a beacon of family services prompting togetherness, social responsibility and health. Locally, the YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City served more than 187,000 people last year through youth sports, exercise programs, swim lessons, camps and more. YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City President Kelly Kay started working for the Y right out of college. Raised by a single parent, Kay said he has a lot of pride in the Y’s mission to serve everyone in the community.
“The thing that’s so unique about the Y is that it truly is ‘for all’ like our mission says,” he said. “We work to make things affordable and I think that’s important.”
Keeping household memberships low-cost, including youth sports programs in the cost of household memberships and offering financial assistance for their popular Camp Classen summer camp are just a few of the ways the Y works to reach everyone, Kelly said. He recalled how his own sons participated in Y sports growing up, giving them opportunities to build physical and social skills and providing him with opportunities to meet other local parents.
Last year alone, the Y provided more than $3.7 million in financial assistance and free or subsidized community programs to more than 35,000 individuals who otherwise could not afford to participate.
The importance of reading to a toddler may seem like common knowledge now, but without Smart Start Central Oklahoma spreading that message, many parents would still be in the dark about how to prepare kids for the classroom. The organization has helped thousands of children in the past 10 years with their mission to bring awareness to the importance of early childhood education.
Smart Start Central Oklahoma Board Chairperson Sue Kuntze has been a child advocate for 50 years and said the idea behind Smart Start was to help equip parents with the tools and resources they needed to prepare their children for school.
“When families with no resources send kids to school with a 400-word vocabulary,” she said, “and families with a lot of resources send kids to school with maybe a 10,000-word vocabulary, that gap is too big to close.”
By teaching parents simple things like the value of reading to infants and toddlers, Kuntze said that gap begins to close and kids begin school on the right foot.
“The greatest gift we can give families is empowerment,” she said. “We believe in families. We believe if we support them, that is the single best investment we can make. Helping parents gain the knowledge and the resources so they’re successful in their role as their child’s first and most influential teacher, that is what we do best."
18. Allied Arts
Deborah McAuliffe Senner remembers being a young girl interested in art, ballet and music lessons. But being the youngest of a family of seven, there was no money for that, she said. Now that she’s the president and CEO of Allied Arts, she’s passionately pursuing making that dream a reality for local kids today.
“I remain a strong advocate for the transformational power of the arts,” she said, “and continue to raise money for those kids and families who lack the financial resources.”
Allied Arts works to broaden support for the arts by raising financial support for cultural organizations, encouraging participation and attendance, advocating for arts education and promoting excellence in the arts and arts management. They have raised more than $63 million to advance the arts in central Oklahoma and currently help fund more than 40 arts groups. They provided 545,000 arts experiences to school children last year, many of them in underserved communities.
Despite years of research showing the arts are closely linked to everything Oklahomans say they want for their children, she said, arts education programs continue to be cut from schools.
“The children of affluent, aspiring parents generally get exposed to the arts whether or not public schools provide them. Low-income children often do not,” she said. “Arts education enables those children from a financially challenged background to have a more level playing field with children who have had those cultural experiences.”
When Jane Sutter volunteered to mentor a third grader back in 1995, she never imagined her short weekly visits would inspire so much positive change.
“What I really learned was what a big difference a little intervention could make,” she said, noting she still has a relationship with the young girl she mentored. “Encouraging, asking questions about school, talking about graduation and college, all give them a vision for what they can see for themselves.”
Sutter is now the president and CEO of The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County, where she gets to experience the power of mentorship on a much larger scale. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County’s mission is to give local youth graduating high school a plan for the future and the skills to become engaged members of the community. The organization accomplishes that for more than 3,400 club members at four local locations through afterschool and school break programs focusing on academics and character development. The most important thing the organization does, Sutter said, is bridge the opportunity gap.
“There’s a huge opportunity gap for kids who come from situations where they have a lot of extracurricular activities or a lot of support systems in their family and beyond their family,” she said. “I feel like we offer a significant support system and enrichment experiences to close that gap and help all kids reach their potential.”
More than 2,000 children will enter Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) in Oklahoma this year and about 2,000 more will have to visit a surgical, medical or pediatric ICUs in Oklahoma. Thousands more will receive a diagnosis of a learning disability, genetic disorder or other special health care need. Through Oklahoma Family Network’s flagship Parent-to-Parent Mentorship Program, the families of these children won’t feel so isolated and overwhelmed during the process.
OFN was first founded in 1996 as an agency focused solely on helping parents with babies born prematurely. But as those babies grew, so did the organization. They now offer programs to help families with a child with a cancer diagnosis, parents who have experienced infant loss and those with children with behavioral health and substance abuse issues.
“Each staff member who works for OFN has a child or young adult with special healthcare needs or disabilities,” said OFN Executive Director Joni Bruce. “Because we have experienced similar situations to those we serve, we were drawn to OFN so we can assist families as they care for their children. Essentially, we want to provide hope when families may feel concerned, frustrated or all alone.”