Photo Courtesy of the Family Friends Program

The College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at Temple University is a pillar in the Philadelphia community, thanks to the various programs aimed at creating lasting changes and community engagement. One of those programs, called Family Friends, provides caregivers of children with special needs with well-deserved respite through their programming, along with access to resources for the families, while fostering long-term relationships between caregivers, mentors, and children.  

"The mission of the program is to reduce stress and isolation for the caregivers, and provide help to support them, to raise the children that that they're caring for," shared program coordinator Helen Hui.  

Housed in the Intergenerational Center for more than 30 years, Family Friends recruits volunteer mentors that are primarily over forty-five years old and works with families of children with special needs. The volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds and receive training on supporting students with special needs. These special needs go beyond disabilities, to include children who have lost their biological parents or live in poverty.  

"The focus of the Intergenerational Center isn't just on the value provided by young people, but also how elders can provide value to their communities," added Hui. 

Mentor Geraldine Russell joined the Family Friends program after working as a caseworker for the Philadelphia County Assistance Office for 35 years and retiring in 2005. When she went into retirement, she wanted to use her passion for helping others and put it towards her volunteer work.  

"I was going out every Saturday and visiting a little girl as a volunteer," Russell laughed. "I took her on her first subway ride, El ride, bus ride and she asked if she had to jump in to get on." 

Russel remains in contact with the family of that little girl, who is now in college and will be graduating soon.  

In 2012, Russell became the program aid for Family Friends. Her role is to find resources for the families and disseminate them. Russell's role as director of 6ABC's Call for Action and volunteer with the Pennsylvania Conference for Women helped her achieve this, as her fellow volunteers come together to provide resources. 

"For the recent winter holiday season, I had 25 volunteers bring toys to give to the children," shared Russell. People began bringing clothes weekly and buying gifts for the children" she noted. "One lady said she felt like she was in Macy's." 

Hui shared most children find the friends and support from students and mentors are the most important thing they gain from the program. The caregivers, she said, agreed. "One of the mothers came to me and said, 'when I'm here, I feel like I'm not being judged and I can let my kids roam and play'," said Hui. 

Caregiver and grandmother Yolanda Hayes took in her grandson after the loss of his parents. She shared, "Family Friends is my support that I can lean on, especially in a time of need. It gives the children hope of learning new things. It also brings the community together as one." 

The program relies heavily on students and volunteers due to Hui being the only professional staff member. The student workers and volunteers provide a variety of quality programs. Students come up with creative ideas for Family Friends to engage with the community. The research-based and human-oriented framework found at CEHD is particularly useful for the program. "A lot of this is a processing of how you connect these families with the people who are actually doing the research and preparation for the future," shared Hui. 

The mission of CEHD is to prepare our students to become leaders and agents of change within their workplace. Programs like Family Friends showcase the needs of our community and opportunities to uplift them. Students from across CEHD bring their coursework and knowledge in education and leadership to help coordinate programming and model good behavior. "As children grow, their needs change, and that is where the education aspect comes in handy," said Hui. 

Going forward, the program wants to enhance support for its members by providing robust programming and resources. Director Helen Hui says, "Family Friends serve three groups of people: caregivers, children and mentors. We will strive to amplify the support of one another on a long-term basis." 

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