Support Along the Road to Self-Reliance

Eye on LSSI, Fall 2011 (Download PDF Download PDF of entire publication)

Jackie, shown here with son Tyler, has found needed support in LSSI’s Single Parent Program. Jackie, who also has a daughter with major health issues, says, “I don’t even like to think about where I would be without this program.” Credit: Fred ZwickyJackie and Rodney are both Peoria-area single parents with very different stories, but each credits the Single Parent Program offered by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) with helping them make life-altering changes on their path to a better future.

“I don’t even like to think about where I would be without this program,” says Jackie, 30, who has a 2-year-old daughter with major health issues. “I’d like to think I would have been strong, but it’s hard to be strong when you stand alone.”

Forty-five-year-old Rodney, who lives with his 11-year-old son, R.J., in Eureka, echoes Jackie’s words. “I don’t know where I’d be. They’ve helped me so much.”

The Single Parent Program, which began in 1978, serves residents of Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford Counties from LSSI’s West Peoria office. A similar program in the Galesburg office, located in the parsonage of First Lutheran Church, serves Knox and Warren Counties.

“We’re here to prevent families — single parents and their kids — from coming into DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) care,” says Tom Mazzola, director of the Peoria-area Single Parent Program. “Along with that, we want to increase their self-reliance and self-sufficiency by helping them develop skills that will allow them to provide for themselves and their families.”

The program, Mazzola says, gives clients a “hand up” instead of a “hand-out.”

Doing more with less

The Peoria Single Parent Program served 85 clients last year, while the Galesburg office served 37. Both programs are operating with smaller staff, due to budget cuts, but Mazzola and Galesburg Single Parent Program coordinator Linda Crandall say services have not been affected.

“The only adjustment we’ve had to make is to do more with less,” says Mazzola. “It doesn’t change our service, our commitment or our drive at all.”

Government funding for the program requires a 25 percent local match, which had come from the United Way. Galesburg continues to receive United Way funding through both Knox and Warren Counties, but the Peoria program’s United Way funds were cut last year.

“To fill in that gap, we’ve had to focus our efforts more on partnering with local churches to help us financially and with in-kind donations,” Mazzola explains.

In the Peoria area, Tara Johnson-Sparks works with clients full-time, juggling between 25 and 40 cases in any given month, while Alisa Hilliard has a smaller caseload, devoting part of her time to this program and the rest to LSSI’s adoption program. In Galesburg, Crandall is currently serving 27 clients.

The program is open to any single parent who has at least one child under 18. It’s open to both sexes, but the majority of participants are women. Referrals can come from anyone, including self-referrals, and clients stay in the program anywhere from a few months to a year.

“We offer one-on-one counseling in the client’s home,” says Johnson-Sparks. “We do anything and everything from linking them with community resources to driving them around looking for a job and driving them to doctor’s appointments. The main thing is we’re a support system.”

The Galesburg office also offers monthly workshops on topics such as money management, parenting and job skills, although Crandall says home visits are still foundational to the program. She adds, “The Single Parent program is a short-term program, but several of our clients have been in the program for a few years. It is our plan for clients to gain self-sufficiency and move on in a very short time, but in many of our clients’ cases, this takes time and progress is slow.”

Focusing on goals

“Every client has a different goal, but we work on issues such as parenting skills, budgeting and housing,” Johnson-Sparks says, adding that she’s even taught some younger moms how to cook and clean.

Rodney, whom Sparks-Johnson first met while he was living with his son in a shelter in Eureka, has been working on parenting skills after Johnson-Sparks helped him find a subsidized apartment.

LSSI’s Single Parent Program helps people like Rodney, 45, cope with the demands of parenting in the midst of overwhelming life stresses. Once a week, LSSI counselor, Tara Johnson-Sparks (left), meets with Rodney and son, R.J., 11, at their home in Eureka. Rodney, who is disabled, went through a divorce more than a year ago and needed coaching in parenting R.J., who has ADHD. Credit: Fred Zwicky“Rodney is a great dad, really. There are just a few parenting things here and there that we tweak,” she says.

Divorced for about a year, Rodney previously worked as a custodian but was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year and is now on disability. His son, R.J., has ADHD.

“Tara has taught me to be more consistent and firmer when I tell R.J. something and to stick to my rules,” says Rodney, who also has a daughter who lives with her mother. “My goals are to be a better parent and to hopefully find a companion to share my life with.”

Jackie, who grew up in Pekin, was homeless, completely alone and in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy when someone referred her to the Single Parent Program. Addicted to drugs since she was 14, she had quit using drugs and was already in a methadone program when she became pregnant.

“She wanted a different kind of life,” Johnson-Sparks says. “She had an 11-year-old son already who was being taken care of by her parents. I started out as someone for her to talk to.”

Jackie needed the program even more after her baby, Ava, was born with multiple severe health problems, including hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

“Tara helped me get nursing care for Ava, because she had to eat every two hours, and it took 45 minutes to feed her because of her health issues. So I was never getting more than 45 minutes of sleep at a time before I had to start the process again,” Jackie recalls. “I was literally going crazy.”

Jackie left the Single Parent Program when Ava was a year old and her life was more in control. About a year later, though, Jackie became ill from a liver disease and sarcoidosis. She was reported to DCFS by a doctor who feared she was too sick to take care of herself and the baby. The case was unfounded, but it thankfully brought Johnson-Sparks and the Single Parent Program back into her life.

“We made up a safety plan, and part of it was to have Tara back on my case,” Jackie says. “She’s helped me find a beautiful apartment in Green Valley, and I’m even developing a relationship with my family again, which I think I would have been too afraid to try to do without Tara’s help.”

Jackie’s goals are to go back to Illinois Central College for a degree in drug and alcohol counseling and to eventually get off methadone completely.

“I was already in the process of trying to change my life when I came into the program, and they helped me stay on that path,” Jackie says.

Helping clients help themselves

That desire by Single Parent Program clients to better themselves, and the fact that they come to the program voluntarily, has inspired members of the Advent Lutheran Church in Morton to formally “adopt” the program, says Pastor Dennis O’Brien and parishioner Lynn Goffinet, who retired in 2006 as an associate executive director of LSSI’s child welfare services in central Illinois.

“These are parents who want to improve their lives, but who have found themselves in very difficult situations,” Goffinet says.

Advent Lutheran raised $4,000 for the program in a garage sale last year and regularly donates clothing, household supplies and gift cards to the program.

“We’ve had staff and clients come in and share how the program has impacted their lives, and that has helped solidify the commitment the congregation has to see that our help really is making a difference,” O’Brien adds.

One former client who has spoken to the congregation is Miranda, a mother of four who was severely depressed and considering giving the children up for adoption when she found the Single Parent Program.

“She was being evicted from place to place and was actually suicidal,” Johnson-Sparks says. “She now has stable housing, is working as a manager and is doing very well. She has told the church she wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for this program.”
Stories like Miranda’s and Jackie’s are “powerful,” says Goffinet.

First English Lutheran Church in Peoria has also been supportive of the program, and Mazzola says his office is working on cultivating relationships with other area churches.

In Galesburg, the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (WELCA) gives support to the single parent program, as do local Lutheran and other churches, local merchants and area support groups for moms.

“This program reminds me of why I got into human service to begin with,” says Mazzola. “It reminds me that we can make a difference in people’s lives.”

Perhaps a client from the Galesburg program said it best: “I would say the support has been most helpful — you have been there for us. And you have been there especially at times when we really needed help. …you have said things that I needed to hear and think about.”

For information on the Single Parent Program in Peoria, please call 309/671-0300. For the Single Parent Program in Galesburg, call 309/343-7681.