Lauren: Thank you so much Rachel for agreeing to this interview for the Durham Connects Blog. What program do you work for and what is it that your program does?
Rachel: I work for the Exchange Family Center and we are here to strengthen families and help parents provide nurturing and discipline for their children and the resources they need so they can do that successfully.
Lauren: How long has your program been providing this service?
Rachel: The Exchange Family Center just turned 23 and we have been doing this work in Durham since 1992.
Lauren: How long have you been a part of this program?
Rachel: I joined the staff here in 2000. So I've been here for more than half the time but not the whole time.
Lauren: How would clients or practitioners find out about your program or service?
Rachel: We are here for families who are really having significant problems and for families who are just having some small struggles. Some of our families who are having significant problems find us through the Department of Social Services or the courts either because they have a report and they have to get help or their child is involved in juvenile court and they want to do something that's a family intervention instead of just for the youth. The rest of our families find us through other human service agencies-places like Durham Connects, their school social worker, their pediatrician's office, their child's childcare center. 15% of our referrals are self-referrals that a friend or family member told them "this might help you"-and that's something we are really proud of, that the vast majority of families who get this service feel like it's a very respectful positive learning experience and want their friends and family to have a similar experience.
Lauren: That's great! You mentioned that you have been working at the Exchange Family Center for 16 years now, what have you noticed has changed in the way you provide services from when you began until now?
Rachel: When I first started everything was tailored 100% to the family, we met the family and then we took from all the different tools we had and we made up an intervention that was just for that family that we thought would work. Then we shifted to Evidence Based Practice using a proven model and that there are little tweaks we do that are tailoring that model to the family but at its core we are using something that's a proven model that has been tested for decades and proven to be really effective. And I think that's a shift in all of our programs- we have services we provide in the classroom to strengthen caregiver-child relationships and help with social-emotional development in childcare settings and reducing challenging behavior there. We have services for families with young children and we have services for families with teenagers. All of those programs are using best practice models. On top ofintervention itself being a best practice model, I think that we as an agency have focused a lot of energy and time in developing both the engagement skills of our staff and the cultural competency of our staff so that we are really partnering with the caregiver so they really do feel like they are being supported as opposed to judged or lectured. I think we always intended to be really good partners but I think that over the time I've been here I've really seen a lot of growth in our ability to have that capacity to help people achieve their own goals instead of imposing our goals on other people.
Lauren: That's a really great point. A lot of Durham Connects moms have mentioned that the one thing that made them feel so comfortable about their nurse home visit was that they really felt supported and that the nurse took the time to listen to them and made them feel more comfortable. It's a great way to help families grow and achieve their own goals. Along those same lines, have you noticed anything that has changed with the clients that you have worked with in the last few years?
Rachel: I think we've seen a wider variety of clients. That although primarily we're a support system for people who are really struggling (may include financially or child's challenging behavior) that over the years as people have learned about our service and the quality of our service, we also see people who just want our service because it's really the best thing out there-it's not just that they can't afford something else, because all of our services are free, but it's that they really want what we have to offer and you can't get it anywhere else.
Lauren: And all of your services are free?
Rachel: All of our services are as accessible as possible. So they are in natural environments, either in the childcare center or in the home, they are free to the person receiving the services, they are in English or in Spanish, they are at times convenient to the family (evenings, weekends, etc.). We are relentlessly trying to engage people and help them prepare for making change instead of just coming in and saying, "somebody said you have to do this so you must be ready to just go ahead and do it" but instead really taking that time to find out what's motivating them, what is it that they want to achieve and how we can help them with those steps. And accommodating whatever things are going on in their life – whether it's a health crisis or a work schedule or caring for elderly relatives-that makes it so that they can meet in a way that works for them.
Lauren: How people are finding out about your services?
Rachel: It really is primarily being referred here by some other service-a childcare center, The Department of Social Services, or your child being involved in truancy court or juvenile court, school social worker or pediatrician. We are part of a network of support-we're certainly not the agency most people happen to know about. People go first to their doctor or school and go through some other resource to find us. We are thrilled Durham Connects is one of those resources that helps people who otherwise wouldn't have heard of us, know we exist.
Lauren: What is the most common question you receive about your services?
Rachel: "Is it going to work!?!" People get entrenched in these patterns with their kids – whether it's at their childcare center or at home- where the behavior seems like no matter what they do it just keeps coming back and they feel really hopeless. They want to know that if what we are offering them is really going to be effective. That's one of the great things about having these proven models is we can say if you stick with us and you practice the things we are talking about it's going to get better. We can have somebody not just tell you go try this, but they are with you while you are trying it and coaching you through it. It's not going to be like a class where we say here's all the information, now try it on your own-It's going to be in-home or in-classroom coaching to help you put it in to action.
Lauren: That's great! Having someone to walk through it with you and being able to ask questions and rely on is such a huge support! What a great resource!
Rachel: I have an activity for you-I'm going to give you five things to do and I want you to do them as fast as you can and I'm going to time you. Ok? Ready?
Lauren: Ok! Ready!
Rachel: Go! Please stand up.
Rachel: Please smile.
Rachel: Say "Hello"
Rachel: Please jump.
Rachel: Please sit.
Rachel: That took you 8 seconds. I'm going to tell you to do those same things again and I want you to do them as fast as you can. Ok?
Rachel: Please don't sit. Please don't sit.
Rachel: Please don't frown.
Rachel: Please don't say goodbye.
Rachel: Please don't have your feet on the floor.
Lauren: (Sits and lifts feet off the floor)
Rachel: No, Not that way. Please don't have both feet on the floor.
Rachel: Please don't stand.
Rachel: So that was the same five things and it took you about twice as long-16 seconds. So why do you think it took you twice as long to do the same things?
Lauren: Because you were saying "Don't do this or don't do that" and I had to really think about it!
Rachel: Right-But we do that all the time to our kids! And it's really hard not to say "don't do that"-that's our habit. What we are helping parents do is show them this way is going to be more effective. Even when I tell you that way is going to be more effective it doesn't mean it's easy for you to start doing it. It's helping people really understand what's making it hard for their kids to listen and then being there to remind them and getting them in the habit so they can eventually do it without thinking. That's really what we are there for – to help people understand why this is cycling the way it is and then support them in making that new habit until that new habit is really comfortable and they can do it without anyone else reminding them.
Lauren: What a great activity! Thanks for sharing! What are some common barriers/obstacles that you see that if they were taken away, would help you do your job better?
Rachel: I think that one of the obstacles for a lot of our families is that they are financially struggling and it's hard to get financial assistance and that's just one extra stressor that's constantly on them. Affordable housing in the same way-if they had more affordable housing, they could then have more stability and more brain power. There's all this research on when people are financially stressed: they can't think as clearly it just takes up so much of your brain power thinking about that in the back of your head. Since we are asking people to try and build a new habit there is all that other stuff going on around housing and money stuff that makes it harder. I think people feeling comfortable getting the help and not feeling like it says they are a bad parent. I think we sometimes have assumptions-like if I said I have to go to a gym because I NEED to get fit then people think "Oh, she's fat." Or if I say I'm going to get swimming lessons so people think "Oh, well you don't know how to swim." So when we say we are doing parenting coaching, people think that means you don't know how to be a good parent instead ofreally respecting that you want to be a rock star parent and address behaviors in a new way that is going to be more effective. I think that perception that people who get this kind of help maybe aren't really good parents to begin with is one of the things that is an obstacle for us and I think it's one of the things we are really clear about that we think everybody who comes to do this is really amazing. Just like I think anybody who chooses to commit themselves to going regularly to the gym is really amazing. There are things we have to work at to get them to the highest level of our potential and I really respect people who want to put in the time and do that in whatever way.
Lauren: Right! You are just improving a skill that you are already using!
Rachel: You are improving your skills and that for some kids- some are a little easier and some are a little harder. If you have an extra hard kid, that extra support to help you respond to that specific kid's needs, that's amazing that you are willing to get that support and make it work for that kid instead of saying "well, you're just harder than the other kids and you're not going to get as great an experience as they had."
Lauren: If there was one thing that you could tell practitioners that work with this same population or have the ability to reach this population, what would it be?
Rachel: I would tell them to focus on building the relationship with the parents and the partnership. If you can build that really good partnership about working together there will be time to do everything else.
Lauren: In relation to that, what one thing would you tell other parents/peers that see your population on how they could help?
Rachel: To reassure parents that needing help is normal for parents and it doesn't mean you are a bad parent. It means you are a parent who is ready to add some new tools to your toolbox and that if you were going to be hiring somebody to fix your house, you would want them to have a wide variety of tools. Because there might be quite a few things you need help with-it just makes them one of those parents that no matter what their kids bring at them, they will be ready for it.
Lauren: If you had a magic wand, what would do with it?
Rachel: Right now we have over 65 children waiting for our services that we don't have space for yet. I would have services for every single person right away. Nobody would call up and say "I want help" and we would have to say "It will be about 8 weeks before we can help you". I wish we could say "Of course! We can have someone go out tomorrow!" It's just really hard-we've had a lot of community support and our waitlist has come down because we've been able to expand our staff but I want be at the place where everybody gets help right away.
Lauren: If you could take one picture that represented what you do and the outcomes that you hope to achieve, what would it be?
Rachel: I would take a picture of a child and a caregiver together and a moment when maybe that child needed help, whether it be redirection or soothing, and that caregiver was there for them giving them that support they needed.
Lauren: What is currently in your cd player/mp3 player/iPhone that you can’t stop listening to?
Rachel: The song, "Girl Crush" by Little Big Town.
Lauren: If you could start a band right now, what genre of music would you play and what instrument would you play?
Rachel: I would for sure play bass guitar and probably pop music.
Lauren: What would the name of the band be?
Rachel: That's a great question. The Lanterns.
Lauren: That's a cool name-I like it! What is the one show that comes on TV, and you always stop to watch it?
Rachel: I ride my exercise bike every morning for the length of one show, so I watch entire shows. I'm excited to watch the newest season of House of Cards Season 4.
Lauren: Is there a book that you absolutely love and would recommend?
Rachel: I love to read! I really always loved the book, The Bean Trees. It's about this girl who is sticking food beans in the ground and this image that she hopes things will grow from them. There is an image in the book where someone is talking about the difference between heaven and hell-and hell you have all these people at this table covered with food but none of them can eat and they are all cranky because they have these super long spoons and forks and they can't reach their own mouths. And heaven, everybody is sitting at this really long table that's covered with food and they are all happy because they have super long forks and spoons and they feed each other. That image really resonated for me-the same circumstances can be so amazing or so horrible depending on how we treat each other during those circumstances.
Lauren: Is there one household chore/daily life activity that everyone else seems to hate but you enjoy?
Rachel: I really like to cook dinner. I like the feeling of being in the kitchen and making something that is going to be the food we are all going to eat and enjoy.
To learn more about Exchange Family Center visit their website http://www.exchangefamilycenter.org/