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Aunties to the Rescue!

A Day in the Life of a Healthy Families Support Specialist

Healthy Families is part of our highly effective home visiting program, which helps new families with keiki age 0-3. We sat down with two of YWCA’s most seasoned Family Support Specialists, Aunty Cathy and Aunty Tiffany. Cathy started in 2000, and Tiffany in 1998. To date, they have provided encouragement, support and guidance for thousands of Hawaii County families with keiki ages 0-3 years old.

The official job description of a Family Support Specialist is: “Aids individuals and families having problems concerning family relationships or other aspects of their social functioning affecting unity of family. Contacts families to schedule visit; consult with members of the team to develop approaches to address the family’s risk factors; foster a supportive relationship with the family; provide services to meet the needs of culturally diverse families; complete service documentation; communicate with  professional team members on families’ needs/concerns; support families transitioning to other programs; update the Family Goal Plan (FGP) review for children not receiving early intervention therapeutic services; participate in all FGP meetings; refer families to community agencies such as DHS, WIC; implement strategies in the FGP with guidance from professional members of the team; work with Child Development Specialist to conduct approved development screens and scales; provide home visits and support services; complete contract, programmatic and organizational paperwork”…etc.

In reality, the job is so much more nuanced. In their own words, we found out what it’s really like to be an “Aunty-hero” with the Healthy Families Program.

Q: What’s a typical day like for a Family Support Specialist?

Aunty Cathy: From the second we clock in, we’re on a speeding treadmill and we just keep going! Visiting families at their homes or on video, taking phone calls, connecting moms and dads with services. Sometimes it takes 45 minutes to get to a home, sometimes we’re out there off the grid or without cell service.

We love meeting new people, folks we might never normally meet. We serve ALL kinds of families, across the social, economic, and ethnic spectrum, from the slopes of Mauna Kea to a beach in Puna, housed or houseless, it doesn’t matter. People’s circumstances don’t define who they are, and every keiki deserves the best start in life no matter what. We’re serving about 106 families at any given time and we love them all.

Q: What is the secret to your success?

AC: With a lot of our families, checking in with government agencies is required, and there can be a level of distrust. We’ve learned from experience that you can have the world’s best curriculum, but it’s worthless if you cannot get into the home. We feel blessed that they let us in. I mean, we’re strangers! But they treat us like family, and we build trust. Yes we are professionals, with government funders and all the related paperwork, but the heart of our service is that we become family. Healthy Families is a voluntary program, they actually want to be with us.

Another aspect is that we are a strength-based program. Families appreciate that. They tell us, “You guys come in and there’s no judgement.” Because when we come in, we’re not looking for what’s wrong. We acknowledge and praise what parents are doing right and we build from there. Some of our new moms have gone their whole lives never being praised for anything, they’ve never been told they did a good job or were being an awesome mom. Being a mom is a hard job, we’re there to encourage, so we start there.

A lot of our effectiveness comes from knowing the local culture, being part of it. Hawai`i Island has its own culture, it’s all about genealogy here. A lot of our own kids have plantation grandparents. We are moms living in the same situation as many of our families. We get that in Hawaii you don’t just drive up to a new house and toot the horn. We stay humble because on Hawai`i Island you always know someone they know, maybe you even end up being related! These are not case numbers or pieces pf paper – they are people, just like you and me.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about the job?

Aunty Tiffany: It’s rewarding to see that you’re making a difference. But what our families don’t realize is they make a difference for us, too. We’ll get a text from a mom showing her happy little boy in preschool. We’ll get smiling pictures of our “babies” 10 years later. I’ll run into one of my families at Target, and find out baby is now in school! Maybe they are the first child from the family to go. We broke the cycle.

One mom reached out to me years after her family finished the program because there was an abuse situation in the home. I felt so thankful and blessed, that in this time of her crisis she knew she still had this support. Our families are not just participants or clients – it’s a relationship.

AC: Recently a mom was telling me about the physical abuse she received during pregnancy. Tears came to my eyes because no woman should have to go through that. I realized I had been stressing about something manini like what to make for dinner. This girl was on the streets just a few months ago. I’m worried about cooking dinner – she had to fight to survive. They empower me and give me perspective.

AT: There’s nothing better than the feeling I get from teaching families how to be advocates for themselves and their children. Really, we get saved when we go out to our families.

Aunty Cathy & Aunty Tiffany, mahalo for your tremendous service to this community!

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