CFLE in Context: Family Life Educators and Home-Based Work
My meandering career path has led to the creation and growth of a nonprofit Family Life Education (FLE) organization, Grow a Strong Family, Inc., that supports families uprooted by mental illness. Supporting mental health and using family-centered practice are essential to my home-based work.
I began my career as a community-based therapeutic recreation specialist working with diverse adult populations. I then earned a degree in elementary education and began working in an after-school program as the site director. The bulk of my work involved meeting with parents, explaining child and family development, and behavior management. I went on to work as the child development specialist and parenting education facilitator in a homeless shelter for families. After that, I worked with families as a liaison between preschools, nursery schools, and community hospitals as a family support specialist. I then went into private practice where I worked with families uprooted by mental illness. At the same time, I worked part time as a fee-for-service, in-home therapist in a social service agency through which I partnered with parents uprooted by their child’s mental illness/substance use disorder and facilitated parenting education, psychoeducation, and resource allocation. Due to fiscal changes in service delivery, I left the agency and embraced private practice full time. I decided to focus exclusively on families uprooted by mental illness in adult family members because there is a void in programs, services, and supports for these families. I turned the private work into a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. Services are specifically tailored to meet the needs of the families, supporters, and caregivers of those with mental illnesses.
I have an M.A. in Family Life Education, a B.A. in philosophy and sociology, and a M.A. (pending) in therapeutic recreation. I hold certifications in elementary education, substance abuse counseling, administering the Myers–Briggs Type Inventory, and teaching/mentoring in the Becoming a Love and Logic Parent Program. In addition to being a Certified Family Life Educator, I am also part of a Certified Pet Therapy team.
I oversee the organization’s day-to-day operations including outreach, marketing, public relations, fiscal management, and program development and implementation. I report to the Board of Directors and ensure compliance with state and federal mandates. I collaborate with the treasurer on managing the budget, recording expenses and assets, and managing grant money that, yes, I apply for! I also manage the website and offer customized Family Life Education services to families uprooted by mental illness in private coaching sessions as well as through co-facilitated monthly support groups.
A typical day starts with checking messages on the phone, e-mail and two Facebook pages. I respond to whatever I need to. I post something on the organization’s page (https://www.facebook.com/growastrongfamily/) that is relevant and useful for families. For example, on November 30, 2018, which was Giving Tuesday, Tamara Lee posted a picture of herself with DJ Jaffe’s book, Insane Consequences, which she was purchasing to give to her legislators in her son’s name. Not only is this resource a must-read, it informs policy makers. This mother found a way to give and advocate. My post was, “Another way to give.”
If I have a client, I prepare for the session. The “family” is the client regardless of who participates. A session focuses on the particular goals established, including developing a safety plan, acquiring more effective strategies in communication, celebrating holidays, navigating community mental health resources, budgeting, and so on. Sessions occur either in my home space, their home, or anywhere they are comfortable. Face-to-face sessions are 60 to 90 minutes long. The key to this model is the between-session support. All clients can contact the coach through phone, text messaging, e-mail, or on Facebook, whenever, however, and as often as they need. The advantage of this format is that I am given the opportunity to work with the client in a relaxed but professional setting. This offers insights into the client’s lived reality. This, I believe, gives me an additional tool for facilitating changes that clients want to make in ways that are comfortable to them. It is hard to hide a messy house, clothes strewn all over the place, interactions, or moods when working in “real time.” In my experience, the first session is “neat and clean.” By the third session, not so much. Home-based services are professional services as a guest in someone’s home or in a homelike environment in the community. To me, the “feel” of the space is as if a friend is visiting and we are sharing coffee and conversation.
Another way that home-based services are delivered is through online FLE, or our website (https://growastrongfamily.org/), YouTube, an open Facebook page, a closed support group on Facebook, and the local cable TV. Our website contains pages of multimedia content relevant to the needs of our population. In addition to basic safety, emergency contact, and resource pages, there are pages on suicide prevention, mental health symptoms, caretaker support, parenting, setting limits, among others. Each page includes a narration with accompanying handout; resources shared in the presentation; links to locations as needed; and, embedded YouTube presentations. This is a way to reach families with important content that meets their needs in the privacy of their own homes and at times that they are available. This has proven especially effective for family members because they can access and share the information as needed. Statistics gathered through StatCounter, Google Analytics, and other accepted analytical resources have indicated the effectiveness of this approach. This has the delightful side effect of encouraging more personal contact through attendance at the monthly support groups, contracting for coaching, and making phone calls for further information and support. As we say, “We have to reach ’em, to teach ’em.”
Our next project is to bring prerecorded coaching sessions into the homes of our consumers. Currently, we offer resources, strategies, and recommendations through the website. The coaching practice is a fee-based model, which many families cannot afford. Insurance does not cover support, education, or prevention. By showcasing particular practices, this model can enable those who learn best through repetition and modeling an beneficial learning opportunity.
As the founder of this family life organization, every aspect of what I have learned about families and FLE is incorporated. After all, the main purpose of the agency, “Grow a Strong Family,” is to “address, educate, coordinate, strategize, stabilize, and provide aid and information to support the families of people affected by a family member’s mental illness.”
Throughout my career, I have sought opportunities to acquire tools that meet the needs of families. From parenting education to couple’s communication, from ethics to practice, all that I have learned has informed the work I do with families. My process has been a mixture of academic and professional development with in-the-field application.
I love the flexibility and customized approach I have in meeting the needs of the families with whom I work. I like that I can teach, coach, and do research. I like knowing that I support families that are otherwise adrift. I also like the fact that my work is evidence based. I love the opportunity to share my strength, hope, and experience in a variety of ways.
The hardest part of working with families uprooted by mental illness is the persistent uncertainty that besieges them. For example, I may work with the parents of an adult child who is not stable and in crisis. This lengthens the learning curve for the family as the first issues, regardless of long-term goals, are safety, referrals, and emergency interventions.
The other part of working with families is establishing the business practices that underscore the model of home-based work. For example, I (finally) have policies that ensure that compensation occurs before scheduled sessions, and there is a cancellation policy that protects both parties. I have developed a contract to agree to services, reviewing the parameters, establishing clarity around expectations, and so on.
I recommend that Family Life Educators acquire as much experience as they can with a variety of populations and settings. See what fits. Move on when you become aware that your interest in that population or setting has waned. Learn. Participate in workshops that combine theory with practice, and develop the most diverse skill set that you can. Keep an open mind. Think out of the box. You are a guide, maybe a mentor; but remember, the best solution for a family is usually the one they develop.
In the work that I do, I synthesize my experiences with current learning so that I can best meet the needs of the families I serve. In my coaching practice, I find that having a wide array of tools facilitates the healing process. Having a full tool kit enables me to draw on resources that match those of the families. As Walsh (2002) pointed out in Normal Family Processes, “the focus is on how families can succeed—envisioning positive goals and options that fit each family’s values and situation and are reachable through collaborative efforts”, p. xi (emphasis mine).
Mara Briere is a master’s-level Certified Family Life Educator and founder and president of Grow a Strong Family, Inc., a nonprofit Family Life Education organization that supports families uprooted by mental illness. She can be reached at [email protected] or through her website: https://growastrongfamily.org.
Jaffe, D. J. (2017). Insane consequences. How the mental health industry fails the mentally ill. New York, NY: Prometheus Books.
Walsh, F. (2002). Normal family processes. Growing diversity and complexity (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.