As a 35-year-old mother of four, Ciara DeBruce was used to putting her children’s needs before her own.

The Family Resource Center at the I Promise School, a partnership between Akron Public Schools and the LeBron James Family Foundation, taught her she can do both — and gave her the support to make it possible.

In the school's first year, DeBruce, whose daughter LaRiyah Moore will enter the fourth grade this fall for the school’s second year, used the school’s food pantry, consulted with legal aid attorneys and revamped her resume with career consultants.

She’s now the resource center’s biggest cheerleader, encouraging other parents to use the school’s extensive resources to help their children and themselves.

“We put everything into our kids and we kind of put ourselves on the back burner,” DeBruce said. “The resource center is a way to [say], ‘You matter, too.’ ”

Starting this fall, other Akron parents and families, and those who live in the neighborhoods around schools, will also have such a center thanks to a pilot program that is a partnership between United Way of Summit County and the Akron school district.

The program will create Family Resource Centers inside the Helen Arnold and Robinson community learning centers. United Way will staff each resource center with a full-time coordinator for wraparound services, which are supports that address needs outside of academics for students and their families, as well as the neighborhood as a whole.

If the initiative continues to grow throughout the district as planned, the resource centers would be the first sustainable, holistic way for Akron schools to address the basic needs and root causes of ailments of children, particularly those who live in poverty.

 

No one approach

Carla Chapman, APS director of community relations, said the United Way staff member will work with families to design plans for addressing systemic problems that often affect students’ academic performance and behavior.

That could mean connecting a family to a primary care physician, mental health care, access to food over winter break or help finding housing. Members of the community who do not have a child at the school will also be able to access the resource center during the day, but the district is still working on protocols to ensure student security.

Akron schools have always had wraparound services, which aim to provide social services to students in need, often extending to their families as well, Chapman said.

The challenge, Chapman said, has been sustaining those efforts and making them available to the entire district, as well as the community.

“What we know is each family has unique needs, and so the ability to address those will always be a challenge, because there's no one-size-fits-all model for wraparound,” she said.

School districts, she said, have traditionally thought of interventions for students in strictly an academic sense. Social circumstances have forced schools to think more about what happens beyond the classroom walls.

“I just think it's better when community partners who have that expertise take that on, because I think that's outside of what schools do well,” she said.

 

‘Community beacon’

That’s where United Way comes in, with an extensive network of services and knowledge about others that exist in the county, CEO Jim Mullen said.

“One of the things we're really trying to embrace is the fundamental thought of what the community learning centers were really meant to be,” Mullen said of the buildings that house the schools.

Beyond just a school, he said, they were designed to be a “community beacon.” United Way plans to learn from the first year of the family resource program and to expand it across the district. The effort mirrors United Way Family Resource Centers at schools in Tennessee and Utah.

Mullen said the organization doesn’t want to trample on the good work of school counselors, but rather help alleviate some of their burden, allowing counselors to focus on individual behavior issues or college applications.

For the United Way center at Robinson CLC, the organization hired ShaQeria Hunter. Hunter was at Helen Arnold CLC this month, reaching out to parents there who bring their children to a summer reading program, a partnership between the city of Akron and APS.

Hunter said she could see a similar reading program happening in the family center, which will also stay open during the summers.

“The more we can engage kids and families, the better,” she said.

The resources available in each center will vary depending on the needs of the neighborhood, Mullen said. The cost for each center is about $200,000 a year.

Gov. Mike DeWine included $550 million for wraparound services in his budget proposal, although it remains in flux until the legislature's final version, which must be approved by the end of this month. 

“We’re excited that legislators are starting to see the impact of formalized wraparound programming as a means to student success,” Mullen said.

Chapman of APS said she shares that excitement but would have concerns if the funding has limitations.

“I need to know that someone whose electric has been turned off can get turned back on because I have the dollars to make that happen,” she said.

 

‘We Are Family’

At the I Promise School, the resource center is part of the school’s “We Are Family” slogan, which foundation leaders say is as much a mindset as a motto.

United Way helped start the school’s resource center, turning it over to the foundation to run partway into the school year last year.

Michele Campbell, the foundation’s executive director, said the center was designed with input from Gloria James, LeBron James’ mother.

They asked her, “What was it like growing up here and what were your challenges? And what could your community have offered you to make it easier on you?”

“Everything that Gloria said are the same things our families are dealing with today,” Campbell said.

The foundation aims to create a model for wraparound services that can be duplicated anywhere in the country, including across Akron, with or without the extensive support of a foundation backed by an international celebrity.

The foundation hired Victoria McGee to run the center, and “Miss Vicky” soon became a lifeline for parents.

One mother, McGee said, came to the school wearing dark sunglasses and asked to see McGee.

When the mother removed her sunglasses, she revealed two black eyes. McGee took her to the police station to report the domestic violence and accompanied her to the court hearing for an order of protection.

As much as the help navigating the system, McGee said, that mother needed someone to listen and to care.

“People know they have a support system they can count on,” she said. “They have hope.”

 

Contact reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.