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Program helps get Hispanic families off to a good start

In the heart of Washington's Hispanic section stands a big house filled with comfortable old sofas, waiting cribs, and brown-eyed, earring-bedecked children clinging to their mothers. It's The Family Place, started by area churches in 1981 with ``$10,000 and a lot of faith and love,'' says director Maria Elena Orrega. Serving mostly refugees from Central America, TFP centers on pregnant women who are ``cut off from their mothers, sisters, and aunts, all the people who would normally care for them,'' she says. ``We find out how far along they are [in their pregnancy], help them make appointments at the clinic, and follow through to make sure they go,'' she says, in an effort to fight Washington's infant mortality rate - one of the highest in the nation.

The Family Place is part of a growing movement that has sprung up over the last 10 years in the United States - a new community service called the family resource center. It's a hybrid, offering programs tailored to the needs of individual communities. These centers work to discover the strengths of each family - good relationships within the family, ethnic identity, or good neighbors - and build on that, rather than center on the conflicts. They nurture families' abilities to solve their own problems.

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That's the case with The Family Place, a member of the Family Resource Coalition, a Chicago-based organization that counsels and encourages a network of more than 2,000 such services.

In addition to its counseling services, TFP also offers free breakfast and lunch to families with children three years old and under as a lure (``plus our washing machine - people come here to do their laundry,'' says Ms. Orrega) - and links pregnant woment with ``First Friends'' - more experienced mothers who help them find maternity clothes and cribs, and sometimes stay with them through labor and delivery.

Counseling ranges along all family problems, including marriage.

``They prefer us to the social workers,'' says TFP counselor Teresa Rosa. ``We talk out of our own experiences, not something we learned in college.''

And the center is working on developing outlets for the women's crafts. The place holds several sewing machines, and clients give each other lessons, says Orrega.

This echoes a phenomena that Blanca Almonte, director for one of the Chicago-based Family Focus centers, noticed.

``Hispanic women have a tremendous talent for crafts in their culture,'' she says, ``which we try to tap as a way to build self-esteem, with women who've always thought of themselves as lowly suddenly elevated to the role of teacher.''

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Ms. Almonte also noticed that ``Hispanics don't just sit around and talk, but if you get them sewing together, you can slip in some of the things you want to say,'' she says.

One of those things is the fostering of a nonviolent, independent method of child rearing. Using the example of a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, Almonte explains that ``In the Mexican culture, good children don't have temper tantrums, and bad children are beaten until they stop,'' she says.

``We could explain until we're blue in the face that it's normal for children to have temper tantrums,'' she says, ``and perhaps even convince the mother to allow the child to have the tantrum. But as soon as she gets home, her mother-in-law is going to berate her for allowing it, and our methods will have caused more family problems than they've solved,'' she thinks.

``Instead, we ask what she wants to achieve with the child having the temper tantrum, and suggest other ways she can get it - removing the child before he becomes a nuisance to the family, for instance, or warding off the tantrum before it begins.''

At TFP, they also encourage parents to help children develop independence at an earlier age than their culture typically allows.

``The Hispanic child isn't supposed to be messy,'' Orrega explains, ``so they're spoon-fed for a very long time. We tell them every day that the child can learn to feed himself in the high chair.''

``It's a delicate balance of trying to decide what parts of their culture they want to keep, and what parts they need to give up to live here,'' explains Bernice Weissbourd, president of the Family Resource Coalition. Good family centers, she says, don't try to stamp the American culture on their clients, but work with the community to meet their needs.

Orrega says TFP has a participants' board, where those who use the center can voice their views and help choose the programs.

It's the flood of participants that persuades Ms. Weissbourd such programs are necessary.

``We started with one parent in 1976 in a program that we hoped would reach 50 families in one year,'' she said. ``Within nine months, we got 350 families - all by word of mouth. Now, Family Focus serves 5,000 families per year.''

Such growth doesn't match the money needed to start and maintain such programs, she says.

``In 1976 when we were new and innovative, it was easy to get money. Now, we're starting to charge fees and look to more private sources.'' TFP in Washington echoes this same trend, though Orrega says fundraising for their $185,000 budget is ``a joy - there is so much spiritual commitment to our program.''

Weissbourd is convinced that the need, unlike the dollars, is not on the decline. ``We're on the cutting edge of prevention,'' she says of this 10-year anniversary, ``helping families get off to a great start.''

A related article on family resource centers ran on this page on Monday, March 30.

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