This article appeared in the Winter 2013–14 issue of Erikson on Children with the headline “Going where we are needed.” More from this issue

What value does a service have if the children and families who need it most can’t access it? Not much, decided Erikson’s Center for Children and Families.

This fall, the Center expanded its support of families in Chicago’s Austin community — a community considered to be among Chicago’s toughest — by opening its first neighborhood-based therapy office.

“We simply have to go to the families instead of expecting them to come to Erikson’s River North campus, even from within the city,” says Center director Margret Nickels. “The barriers — family and work obligations, unfamiliar environment, the availability of transportation, and the financial cost — are just too high for many of the families who would benefit the most.”

For two years, the Center has hosted Parent Cafés, safe and nurturing drop-in groups for Austin parents. In September, the neighborhood-based therapy office opened on the border of Chicago’s Austin and Oak Park communities and began helping what Nickels describes as a “vastly underserved” population — children and families in Austin.

Partnering with the Austin community

The Center for Children and Families initiatives are just one part of Erikson’s larger, coordinated effort to help the Austin community achieve its goal of giving its children the opportunity to succeed in school and beyond.

Last year, the Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy completed a community needs assessment for Austin Coming Together, a community-based organization. The assessment was funded through the generosity of JPMorgan Chase.

For several years, the New Schools Project has partnered with three Chicago Public Schools in Austin to establish effective learning environments for children in prekindergarten through third grade. Recently, Professor Pam Epley joined the New Schools Project team to support teachers of students with special needs. The Center for Children and Families contributes to the Project’s parent engagement efforts by holding one of its Parent Cafés at Oscar DePriest Elementary, a New Schools Project partner school.

Erikson continues to build on these efforts: it is developing a plan for providing comprehensive mental health support to Austin families through partnerships with elementary schools, social service agencies, and child care facilities. The plan is expected to be operational in 2014.

Parents learning from each other

During the weekly Parent Cafés held at DePriest Elementary and Channing Childcare, a Head Start facility in Austin, parents gather to share pizza and cookies, as well as their parenting joys and frustrations. Each café is facilitated by either Cassandra Ward or Sara Anderson, Center therapists.

“Often families are afraid to talk to teachers. They just don’t know how,” Ward says. “The DePriest café helps bridge the gap between school and home by giving families the language and support they need to advocate for their children.”

Austin resident Bianca Miles starting coming to the Channing café this year looking for a different kind of help: she wasn’t sure how to handle her 2-year-old son’s tantrums.

“As a young parent, it’s been helpful to hear other parents’ experiences and learn different parenting techniques,” says Miles. “We see how different techniques work with different children.”

But even more helpful is learning to reflect on her parenting and how the world looks from her child’s perspective.

“[Center therapist Sara Anderson] asks questions to help us find the answers that will work for our families,” says Miles. “It’s taught me how to be a better parent, how to stop and think about what might be causing Aiden’s tantrums. Is he tired, hungry, or frustrated?”

Aiden is past the tantrum stage now, but Miles continues attending the cafés.

“I think Aiden appreciates that I’m involved at Channing and that I’m asking questions,” she says. “He sees how important being involved is to me and acts better because of it.”

Channing Center director Ruth Kimble also has seen the benefits of the Parent Cafés.

“So many parents in Austin are frustrated that what they are doing is not working for their children and are looking for resources,” says Kimble. “Erikson provides this. I can’t think of any other program in Austin like it.”

One-on-one help

Families who need more intensive help now have a community-based resource at the Center for Children and Families therapy office. It is conveniently housed in the Easter Seals’s Willett Center.

At the office, therapists Ward and Anderson work one-on-one with families, providing developmentally-focused assessments and therapy to families referred by schools and social service agencies. Some families also are coming for therapy after attending Parent Cafés.

“We’ve worked hard to build strong relationships in the community through the cafés and other activities,” says Anderson. “Families see that we are committed to Austin and that we’re not going anywhere. We’re here to stay.”

Investing in families

None of Erikson’s services in Austin would be possible without the support of Chicago philanthropists, including JPMorgan Chase, a longtime supporter of Erikson and the Austin community. Other philanthropists are joining the effort. This year, Erikson successfully completed a $200,000 matching challenge to advance initiatives in Austin and expand the Institute’s work.

A generous donor is making possible therapy services for children and families, and others are supporting special needs children in Erikson’s partner schools. Most recently, a new philanthropic investment will further Erikson’s parent engagement efforts and mental health services linking schools and community.

“I see families every week who I believe need services or assessment,” says Ward. “It’s so frustrating to see the large need, but it is also rewarding to see that we are beginning to make a difference in the lives of children and families.