Family Community Services welcomes new coordinator

Family Community Services welcomes new coordinator
Posted on 11/22/2016
Maybe the request comes in the form of a student needing basic school supplies, or maybe a student needs help finding housing, transportation to school or medical services. No matter the need, Lynden School District’s Family Community Services fills the need.

Perched above Lynden Middle School on the second level of the Jansen Auditorium, Family Community Services has moved around ever since its 1996 inception—it has lived at Bernice Vossbeck, Fisher and now finds its home for the second straight year at LMS—but the mission hasn’t wavered.

“Anything that supports a student to be successful at school has been the old motto that moves forward,” says Karen Sluss, who has been present in the program since day one.

New to the role of coordinator, though, is Margaret Vailencour, who started in November after a recent stint with Lydia Place where she worked to find housing for homeless families and provide in-home case management. Vailencour was drawn to Lynden’s position because she could still work as a case manager, but also add in the piece of “working in a school with families and helping families and children succeed.”

Fluent in Spanish, Vailencour has also in the past worked in Lynden’s migrant summer school program and has a heart for working with the Latina community and placing a focus of welcoming them to schools.

Now in its 21st year, Family Community Services no longer flies under the radar, as many businesses, community members, churches and school staff know how the program helps students and just how they can support the effort. “We have great connections throughout the community,” Sluss says. “In Lynden specifically those connections keep growing. Over the last 10 years we have gotten some pretty good partnerships going with local groups to where if we have a need we have a lot more local connections.”

Referrals can come to the service from anywhere. It can be a school counselor or administrator, a teacher—elementary teachers really remain involved in every aspect of a student’s life—or even community members.

Over time the focus of the program has had slight focus shifts, even if remaining centered on supporting students. Differing coordinators have had expertise in varying areas, whether medical, housing or counseling. And funding sources can sometimes put a renewed focus on other areas.

The current funding model, which includes money from Whatcom County and outside grants includes placing a focus on transportation and mental health counseling. But, really, the new focus requires staff to track services and referrals and doesn’t distract them from putting a focus on all sorts of basic needs.

“We have to be able to attract funding and when we agree to meet goals with certain funding, it has to become part of what we do,” Sluss says. “It does dictate things we track, but the funding doesn’t change the service to the families, it only brings a stronger focus on training.”

Vailencour says with her degree in building community through multicultural education, she feels strongly that welcoming families into the school can help individuals find success.

“Every child does not come to school in the same way,” she says, “loaded with the same supplies, emotional energy or benefits. We need to make that more of a level field for them to be successful and they need to feel free to ask for that help when they need it.”

And that’s why the requests can range from needing a backpack—those are the easy ones to fill as donations generally allow for Vailencour and Sluss to keep needed supplies on hand for same-day delivery—to helping a student find a mental health counselor.

“The more difficult request are the multi-level requests that are more intensive and those can change weekly,” Sluss says. “We can work with a family for several years and it can involve, housing, mental, health, all of it. Some of them just need that walk through the system more than once. We are being that family and student advocate so those connections get made. There are a lot of reasons why people get overwhelmed and we do a needs assessment and work with them through that to help them so it is not as overwhelming.”

Vailencour says, as any educator would, she finds the most satisfaction when a student’s eyes light up when they understand something new. For her, that extends to the entire family. “It works for a family as a whole, so they can meet their goal and keep moving forward,” she says. “A lot of times it is really scary to come into school and you are coming in with something you don’t have. You don’t want to be called out, but we want them to know they are welcome and can get help and keep going. Having connection with someone is huge.”

As new families come for help, Sluss says she really puts a focus on relationship and building trust. “We want them to feel comfortable working through some of those challenges,” she says. Sometimes needs are simpler to fill because of the many connections Family Community Services has built over the years, but things always change and sometimes research is needed. Either way, the goal of staff remains to confidentially point families in the right direction of resources and “go the extra mile to learn about new ones out there.”

For anyone wishing to help donate or assist Family Community Services, Sluss encourages you to call the program at 354-1549. A lot of what goes on is confidential, so helping with projects can be difficult, but there are other ways of helping, Sluss says, and a conversation can help find the best match.

Plus, you never know when the timing to fill an immediate need fits perfectly. Just last year the program found that students were missing school because they were unable to get up in time to catch the school bus. It turns out they needed alarm clocks. The same day the program found out about the need someone called asking how they could help with some extra money they had raised.

“I said, ‘actually, we could use alarm clocks,’” Sluss says. “It works really well. We will get those random calls sometimes at the perfect time. Those are fun.”