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Family centers serve Cass County

BACKUS — Cass County’s five family centers have become the primary resource people seek first when someone looks for a way to solve their problems or seeks help to improve their family’s life.

The centers began under the Children’s Initiative with a PEW Family Foundation grant in 1994.

Today, the Children’s Initiative focuses on coordinating with school districts in the county to improve services through sharing information and resources for social services, public health, mental health, schools and corrections.

The Children’s Initiative began as a cooperative effort with Leech Lake Reservation, but reservation officials in recent years have not been participating. They will not be signing the joint agency agreement this year, though the county hopes a new reservation administration election last summer may renew interest.

As the family centers developed and focused on needs within each of their individual communities, they became independent operations from the Children’s Initiative. Each center serves as a local resource center to connect local people with available services and to fill gaps in family supportive programs.

Family Centers are located at Pillager, Pine River (also serving Backus), Walker (also serving Onigum and Walker student’s families from Akeley), Remer (also serving Longville) and Cass Lake.

Three of the five centers participate in a program started at Pine River called the Working Together Coalition. Its goal for eight years has been to encourage youth to say “no” to the use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Local schools also participate.

Most family centers serve as a location for people to come who seek family planning assistance, want to participate in the WIC program or get child and teen checkups or access social services or Minnesota Workforce help.

Many run or help coordinate their local food shelf. The Cass Lake center reports they served 1,000 people at their food shelf in one day in October this year. All report the need for food is great this year. Pine River’s food shelf serves about 150 families a month.

The centers help people connect with fuel assistance. The Remer center also loans out space heaters to tide people over until they can get fuel assistance or otherwise get a more permanent heat source.

Most have an outreach service to visit families in their homes when they are first time parents, helping them to learn what to expect from their developing infants and helping them deal with the stresses of parenting.

The Pine River center reports serving 76 families with that service, 39 of which were teen parents since the program started there. Of the 76 families 38 had dads also participating in the home visits and curriculum.

Some serve as their community’s center for free income tax filing and the center for people to come for help with Medicare enrollments.

Pillager’s center offers pre-kindergarten child care, coordinating that with educational classes for 27 children. Attendance is above normal, they report. They also offer after school programs, for school children where they can get help with school work a snack and play games. They have a safe after home football game activity center program.

Cass Lake’s center reports serving the most diverse ethnic client base, with some African-Americans and Asian-Americans in addition to Caucasians and American Indians. That family center has been trying to serve their clientele with all volunteers.

Their needs increased after the severe windstorm hit that area in July. They report some homes there are still without power, not because of the power company but because people’s homes were so severely damaged. Others have been left without transportation because trees fell on their vehicle.

Cass Lake center reports their focus has been on providing emergency shelter and deal with chronic homelessness, trying to combat underage drinking and illegal drug use, school transition issues for youth with disabilities, dealing with gang issues, help children with mental health issues, provide youth activities and collaborate with other agencies.

“While we cannot change where the child has been, we can facilitate change in where he or she is going,” is among the axioms under which the Cass Lake center operates as they try to ensure youth complete their education and find employment.

Walker’s center is home to a Kinship Partners program. It currently has 17 matches, of which five have been in the program five years or more. Ten children are on a waiting list.

Walker children have an option to participate in the Boys and Girls Club program.

Classes for adults wanting to earn their high school equivalency diploma can take classes at the Remer center.

The Cass County family centers today operate with some county funding and on grants.