When Janet Veach needs anything, she texts Ri-Chelle Oliver, a family advocate who can help her with anything from budgeting to creating a chore chart for her two kids.
“It’s a friendship, but it’s also like a family,” Veach said. “It’s someone I can trust and I can confide in.”
Oliver is assigned to the roughly 12 families at Maurice River Township School, Port Elizabeth, Cumberland County, who are part of the Family Strengthening Network, a nonprofit group based in Bridgeton that works with families on financial stability, jobs, relationships, education and faith in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.
The network is one of the groups that work with the Pascale Sykes Foundation, which has spent more than 25 years helping New Jersey’s low-income, working families through the Whole Family Approach, an idea that everyone in the family must actively participate in order to achieve goals. Foundation representatives will speak at the National Health and Human Services Summit in Arlington, Virginia, on Monday, putting the foundation’s approach in the national spotlight.
Veach, her two children and her boyfriend, all of Delmont, have been part of the Family Strengthening Network for three years. They participate in monthly seminars at the school on everything from budgeting to family dynamics and attend regular events that bring families in the community together to exchange ideas.
“I can’t speak more than enough about them, with what they’ve come up with.” Veach said. “I wish they’d have it more in the month because that’s my only outing really besides work, and what we do on the outside as a family is coming here and seeing them here.”
Rich Nichols, program director for Family Strengthening Network, will speak on the panel about how family advocates assist families to achieve their financial, relationship and family goals.
While they aren’t formally trained social workers or counselors, advocates are people in the community who have a passion for connecting with families. Nichols said they are school teachers, youth leaders and even chefs and dentists.
Oliver, who’s been a family advocate since September but has worked with the Family Strengthening Network for four years, enjoys working with the families in addition to being the front office secretary at the school.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to sit down with them and help them figure out ways to come up with goals and the steps they’re going to need to obtain that goal,” Oliver said.
While the advocate can help families identify their goals and plot out steps to achieve them, The Whole Family Approach depends on every member of the family getting involved to work towards those goals.
“Basically, it was bringing the family closer together,” Veach said, who has a 16-year-old daughter and a 11-year-old son. “Between work and school, it’s extra time that we could spend here as a family, along with other families, people that we know here in the area. Gives us different ideas on how to save money, spend time with kids, do extracurricular activities out of school as a family.”