Family Outreach Worker: Strengthening Communities and Supporting Families
I want to tell you about an incredible program- a truly beautiful initiative called the Family Outreach Worker project, a service that the Novak Djokovic Foundation supplied the initial funds for in 2013, and that is now being implemented in partnership with UNICEF and the Serbian Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Service Affairs.
But first, I’d like to tell you why it matters so much to me, personally. Why I can scarcely read about the families helped through this scheme and not weep for joy.
I read about them, and I feel it. I remember it, that fear of uncertainty, the paralyzing grip of insecurity. The questions, unending: Where are we going to live? How are we going to eat? When are we going back to school? A child’s questions in my memory, though I process them now as an adult, a mother, and the horror of it crystallizes in new ways. How did my own mother cope? Finally freed from a long cycle of abuse but unhinged in that freedom: jobless, homeless, with only a broken-down car and three children tethering her to the impossible reality of this terrifying , overwhelming, and unavoidable ending of life as we knew it. There were tears, I can tell you.
An entire year of them.
We needed help. So much help. And miraculously, because truly, it does feel like a miracle when through the chasm of bleak uncertainty, a perfect absence of hope, comes just that: a rush of possibility- we received help when we needed it most. Real, tangible help, that bypassed the looks of pity and embarrassment at our shame and manifested in actual help: a safe room to sleep in. Meals. A good and steady job for my mom. Opportunities we had the freedom to take. Relief. What a relief it was, to be seen. To be told: you are not alone. And though today is hard, though the here and now is difficult, we want to help you find your way to a better tomorrow. What a miracle.
And so when I first learned about the Family Outreach Worker program, and discovered that it aims to empower families facing difficult times with tangible help tailored to that family’s specific needs, my heart thrummed with the recognition of the incredible power and importance of this mission.
Most specifically, the program aims to keep children out of foster care and with their families- a necessary and critical goal. Between 2000 and 2013, the total number of children placed in care in Serbia rose by 42%- a brutal truth that the Novak Djokovic Foundation has sought to remedy through this practical and effective program.
The strength of this service lies in its people – in the Family Outreach Workers themselves, and the bonds they form with the families assigned to them. These individuals come from social work backgrounds and are committed to improving, where they can, the lives of families who have fallen short in ways that might eventually lead to their children being removed from their homes and placed in institutionalized care. By working closely with local authorities, the Outreach Worker is often able to identify these families and their specific needs before the situation reaches a crisis point that would make a separation necessary.
And the results have been amazing; since the first ten-month pilot period, which began in July 2014, 325 families have benefited from the program.
545 adults and 791 children.
Lives that belong to real people, like this mother, who, when asked what she would tell another mother who was going through a difficult time replied, “I would tell her that there’s someone called a family support worker, to listen to her and to remember what she tells you. She helped me too. She brought me up to my feet.”
I can’t read those words without tears- because this mother might as well have been my own. Her wording, that simple and mighty turn of phrase: She brought me up to my feet. Those words speak to the relief of someone seeing you, there on the ground, unable to stand, having had the rug ripped out from beneath your feet. Of that person reaching out to you, pulling you up, righting you, so that you may once again recognize your own strength and the power of your own person. Your own ability to stand, to carry yourself, and those you love with dignity and with pride. Oh, my heart.
The beauty of helping one another. I’m here to tell you: it matters.