Directions: “I Wish I Could Find an Association That Worked With Families”

Dawn Cassidy, M.Ed., CFLE, Director of Family Life Education
/ NCFR Report, Summer 2023

See all articles from this issue.


I grew up in a dysfunctional family with alcoholism and domestic violence. In this same place, fraught with anger and sadness, I felt loved, special, and secure. Families are complicated.   

My parents divorced when I was 1 and my brother was 4. Our father was only peripherally involved in our lives (though my brother lived with him as a teenager). My mother struggled as a single mother, but our early home life was happy, and I never had any idea that we didn’t have a lot of money. My mother loved music — the stereo was always playing Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Byrd, and others — and art — the family regularly visited Minneapolis Institute of Arts. We had so many adventures including sneaking into the nearby motel swimming pool, my mother directing us to just “act like you belong here.” She was very funny, so we often laughed at and with one another (Anybody out there ever listen to Alan Sherman?). My mother was creative, she would tell us the president was coming and we had only 15 minutes to get the entire house clean. It was very effective as we all scrambled around the house trying to make order so we would “pass inspection.” I have fond memories of her tucking me into bed and covering me with kisses.   

When I was 9, she married a charming man who looked like Cary Grant. My older brother and I were thrilled to have a dad and soon we had a little brother. But the marriage was troubled as my stepfather was an angry drunk who would pick on my brother (the reason he later went to live with our dad) and yell at my mother. For some reason, he was never mean to me. Eventually, the yelling turned to hitting. I have memories of fleeing to my mom’s friend’s home where we would stay for several days. As I got older, I’d stay at my friend’s house instead. My stepdad was always super nice when we came home, for a while, at least.  

When I was 17, our family went through family counseling at the Hazelden facility here in Minnesota. We were there to address my mother’s alcoholism, but she was less than receptive given that her alcoholic husband was sitting right next to her playing the role of the long-suffering spouse. Their marriage lasted nearly 25 years with a few separations along the way and four additional attempts at family counseling and rehabilitation (with at least one round focused on my stepdad). They divorced when I was in my early 30s. They both continued to drink throughout their lives with my mother drinking until her last day in hospice, where she died of emphysema at age 67.  

It was not an idyllic childhood but at the same time, there was a lot of love in our family. I learned firsthand the value and damage that a family can bring. I am grateful to my mother for always telling me that what I saw in their relationship was not normal. It was not good, and it was not how it was supposed to be. That was important for me to know.  

Although it was uncomfortable, I was fascinated by the processes carried out in my family’s counseling experiences. I recall thinking that I wanted to be a family therapist. Although my parents did not quit drinking entirely, our family benefitted from each counseling experience. I went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in psychology with the intent of getting a master’s degree in family therapy; however, I took a break before graduate school and found myself working for the Minnesota Multi Housing Association (MHA). I worked there for seven years where I administered a certification program for apartment managers and maintenance technicians. I loved association work. Even though I recognized the value and importance of providing quality rental housing, I recall saying to my husband, “I wish I could find an association that worked with families.” A few weeks later, I saw an ad in the newspaper for a Certification Director for the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). This was MY job.  

And so, it has been for the past 34 years. I am grateful to Dr. Mary Jo Czaplewski, NCFR then-executive director, who saw something in me and hired me for the position. I truly could not have asked for a better job. People have commented “Wow, you are still in the same job?” But I haven’t been. As you can imagine with anything carried out over the course of 30+ years, things were constantly changing. When I started at NCFR in 1989, computers were only beginning. There was no internet, websites, databases, or cellphones smaller than a liter bottle of pop. I managed the Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE) credential program, almost from its beginning, as a portfolio review process that required the shipment of inches-thick paper applications to the NCFR office and then out again to each of three reviewers. I was involved in the creation of the Academic Program Review in 1996, which resulted in the CFLE-approved program application (abbreviated) process, as well as the development and launch of the CFLE exam in 2007. I worked with other NCFR staff to move the entire CFLE application process online in 2018 and launch the Family Life Education (FLE) assessment exam in that same year.  I am so proud to have seen the Family Life Education Virtual Summit become a reality and represent a successful event specifically focused on FLE practitioners. 

My responsibilities within NCFR expanded in the early 2000s when I took on additional duties involving production of various NCFR publications including the Tools for Ethical Thinking and Practice booklet, the Internship/Practicum Handbook, three editions of a very popular Family Life Education (FLE) Teacher’s Kit, two editions of Family Life Education, Integrating Theory and Practice, and Family Life Education: The Practice of Family Science. I also found myself on the webinar production team.  

I’m grateful to Dr. Carol Darling who invited me to contribute to my first journal article and to Dr. Lane Powel, who asked me to be a co-author with her on a Family Life Education textbook. Carol and I would go on to edit two more editions of that book (with Dr. Sharon Ballard on the third). Without the belief and support of these important women it never would have occurred to me that I could be an author.  

I have had the opportunity to travel throughout the United States for NCFR conferences, as well as FLE-related speaking engagements which landed me in countries like Singapore, China, Japan, Germany, and England, even working with the U.S. Airforce to help family support personnel pursue their CFLE credential.  

Fairly early on in my tenure at NCFR, I realized that I needed to learn more about FLE—so, I obtained an M.Ed. in family and community education. I loved studying the family from an academic perspective, applying theories and terminology to the circumstances I experienced and witnessed growing up in my own family. I found the study of families to pair beautifully with my undergraduate degree in psychology. I have always been fascinated by people’s behavior, always looking below the surface for why someone acts the way they do. My empathetic nature causes me to look at feelings and motivation. And as I have shared in previous columns, I cling to the words of former NCFR member and CFLE, Dr. Nelwyn Moore who once told me, “Dawn, it all comes down to unmet needs.” 

Working at NCFR has provided me with the opportunity to devote my professional life to something in which I truly believe. FLE can make a powerful, positive impact on the well-being of individuals and society.  It is frustrating to me that it is not more widely utilized and understood. To me, it is a no-brainer. Provide the public with the recognized knowledge and skills people need to live productive, contributing, healthy, meaningful lives and families and individuals will thrive. I believe that when people have the knowledge and skills they need to be successful, i.e., have more of their needs met, they are less likely to get in the way of others doing the same. 

I am proud of the work that I have done at NCFR and look forward to watching NCFR and the CFLE program continue to grow. I could not be happier with the selection of Jessica Oswald, CFLE, to be the new NCFR Education Manager. Her educational and professional background is perfectly suited for the work needed to carry the CFLE credential and NCFR’s education programing forward.  

NCFR is an amazing place to work with incredible staff, members, and CFLEs. Executive Director Diane Cushman’s mastery of strategic thinking and planning, and her understanding and value of the importance of work-life balance has been much appreciated. I am putting that work-life balance into practice by retiring as NCFR’s director of Family Life Education, but I am grateful to NCFR for the opportunity to transition to full retirement through some part-time work over the coming months.  

It’s been quite a ride and I could not be more grateful. Thank you all!