December, 2017

Best Gift Ever… Throw Something Back this Season

Posted in Community on December 20th, 2017 with No Comments

Tomorrow, December 21, marks the winter solstice.  Given its close proximity to Christmas and the dash to wrap up our holiday shopping, the occasion is in the habit of being overlooked by many.  The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), because at the (June and December) solstices, the sun’s declination “stands still”.  What an interesting ripple we might make if we were to follow the sun’s lead tomorrow and pause…  Imagine what could be revealed in that quiet?

That silence and rest might just remind us that the the best gift ever could be that of simply giving back – perhaps in honor of that friend, loved-one, or relative who remains on your shopping list. Maya Angelou once shared, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back.”  We send a powerful message when we give back like the team from Bank of America represented in the above photo with Family Services’ CEO Elizabeth Sweeney and Community Programs Director Aida Castro. We communicate that we are all in this together. Not only does that compassion make a difference in the lives of others, it gives each of us an enhanced sense of well being that echoes far and wide.

The countless acts of “throwing back” that come in our direction are what fuel our ability at Family Services to truly wrap our arms around everyone in the Merrimack Valley.  Here’s what that broad stroke of compassion looks like on any given day…  It looks like a 10-year-old boy with a newfound confidence holding tight to a dream of one day becoming an astronomer. It looks like a classroom filled with men and women consumed by their studies of the English language. It looks like a boy in the fifth grade being matched with a mentor, and then ten years later, poised to become a fashion designer. It looks like Donald and Josephine living well as they age thanks to weekly visits with our Outreach Nurse Sharon Thomson at the Methuen Senior Center.  It looks like welcoming and assisting in the transition of a young couple with a newborn baby as they arrive here (in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria) with nothing more than the shirts on their backs.  It looks like “us”, and it simply would not be possible without the generous support we receive from our donors.

So tomorrow… remember to enjoy the solstice, and the season.   Stand still for a bit, and you might just find that the best give ever is right there in front of you – giving back.  No traffic, or last minute trip to the mall required in making a financial contribution of any size.  Thank you so much for helping us as we continue to send a message of hope and confidence to thousands of children and families in the Merrimack Valley.

Match Support – Mentors Sharing Best Practices

Posted in Mentoring on December 19th, 2017 with No Comments

On Tuesday, November 14, Family Services of the Merrimack Valley played host to over thirty mentors from the Big Friends Little Friends and Stand & Deliver programs gathered at an appreciation dinner.  In addition to mingling and highlights from the year, the evening’s group discussion tapped into the collective experience of the volunteers in the room to address a few common challenges that can arise over the course of a mentoring relationship.  Those in attendance offered suggestions, reflections and ideas that might serve other mentors.  Here are just a few of the tips:

Staying Connected

Over the course of the year, there may be times that are harder than others to meet a mentoring commitment.  Similarly, a mentee’s life stages (e.g. a transition to high school, the changes of adolescence) can pose new challenges to staying connected.  Some tips and advice:

  • Stay in communication: Clear and timely communication between the mentor and mentee’s family or site coordinator is essential to avoid disappointment and confusion. If you can no longer make a meeting, be honest about your situation, communicate promptly, perhaps using a quick method like text, and if possible, coordinate a substitute (in the case of the Stand & Deliver) or propose a few options for rescheduled dates (in the case of Big Friends Little Friends).
  • Block time in your calendar: Communicate your mentoring time commitments with your supervisor, colleagues, or family so that they can help support your commitment.  Schedule your meetings in your digital or print planner.
  • Stay curious: Ask questions about your mentee’s evolving interests and explore new areas like sports, theater, etc.

Processing Tragic Events

Tragic events in the news or community like violence and natural disasters can be hard for children and youth to process.  They may struggle with sadness, anxiety, or feelings of helplessness.  Your mentee may want to share their thoughts or feelings with you.  What are some approaches to discussing tragic issues in the news or community with your mentee in an age-appropriate way?

  • Start with your mentee’s perspective: If your mentee wants to talk about a tragic event, first be an active listener, acknowledge their concerns, and let them share their opinions and feelings.
  • Remember that adults have a broader world view than young people: Your mentee may have a different sense of the event than you do.  He/she may not have access to TV news or the internet.  Mentors can help give perspective and relate the event to the mentee’s everyday life; however, avoid focusing the discussion on your own political or cultural views or overwhelming your mentee with background and context.
  • Communicate with Family Services staff or your mentee’s parent, if needed: If your mentee seems very anxious, afraid, or sad, check in with your program coordinator or the mentee’s parent.

Aiming High

Mentors can be a key resource for helping young people explore their future and set goals.  In what ways can you help your mentee explore higher education and/or career paths at different ages?

  • Establish goals and identify a starting point for each: Help your mentee learn about effective goal-setting by documenting, prioritizing, and making an action plan for their goals.  Don’t forget to explain what not to do when pursuing goals—like pitfalls to avoid and time management—as well as budget and financial considerations of pursuing goals.
  • Remember to explore all possibilities:  Look at all avenues for achieving a goal, from scholarships to the application process to references.  Help your mentee ask the right questions.
  • Attitude is everything:  Inspire a growth mindset where your mentee can learn from failure.  Remember to discuss the “soft skills” needed to achieve goals–what mindsets and communication skills facilitate goal fulfillment?
  • Share your own experiences:  Serve as a role model for your mentee by sharing your own path toward pursuing your life goals.  Share not only your successes, but your failures.
  • Increase your mentee’s exposure to new experiences and options:  Think about ways you can introduce your mentee to new career paths, the culture of different fields (e.g. corporate culture), and a greater range of post-high school options.
  • Be patient:  This applies to both the mentor and the mentee.  Mentors should remember to keep their own personal goals or expectations in check.
    • Remember that adults have a broader world view than young people: Your mentee may have a different sense of the event than you do.  He/she may not have access to TV news or the internet.  Mentors can help give perspective and relate the event to the mentee’s everyday life; however, avoid focusing the discussion on your own political or cultural views or overwhelming your mentee with background and context.
    • Communicate with Family Services staff or your mentee’s parent, if needed: If your mentee seems very anxious, afraid, or sad, check in with your program coordinator or the mentee’s parent.

Investing in the Relationship:

The mentor plays a driving role in ensuring the match thrives and grows over the year and beyond.

  • Use match support: Match support is always available to help guide you through challenging times or situations in the relationship.
  • Utilize other resources: Resources like or also offer tips on social and academic skill development applicable to mentoring.  When appropriate, engage other resources, such as a math teacher at school to assist with math homework.
  • Balance your discussion: Make a point to blend both social discussions with goal and growth discussions.
  • Engage the community: Stay connected to your (or your mentee’s) community by attending community events together.  As a mentor, attend mentor mingle events, and stay in touch with other mentors in your program to share perspectives and advice.
  • Small gestures: Don’t forget small gestures matter, like sending a text message to check in, greeting card, or encouraging note.

    Find additional resources on the Family Services of the Merrimack Valley blog.

    Image courtesy of NPR. A special thanks to Christina Haines of our Big Friends Little Friends program for sharing this content. 


It’s Okay to be Happy Again – Suicide Survivors and the Holiday Season

Posted in Suicide Prevention and Postvention on December 14th, 2017 with No Comments

Rosemary Heiseler lost her sister Carol, in 1986, and her mother Elizabeth, in 1997.  Both losses were the result of suicide.  All too well she knows the daily pain survivors shoulder.  Grief has no time frame, and the ache for certain ramps up a few extra notches this time of the year.  “It’s been a while, so the holidays aren’t painful anymore, just a bit sad and bittersweet,” reflects Rosemary.  But, over time Ms. Heiseler has developed some personal strategies for coping.  “One thing I like to do this time of year is donate to my mother’s favorite charity, Rosie’s Place in Boston.  My mother loved donating money and household items to that charity every year.  I also support the MSPCA as my mother liked to donate blankets, towels, and sheets to them.  If your loved one was involved in any charity, I suggest continuing that tradition in their name.”

Is it okay to be happy again?  “It is absolutely okay to be happy again, especially if you have children who get excited for the holidays,” suggests Ms. Heiseler.  “My children were 8 and 12 when ‘Nana’ passed away, and I just muscled my way through each Christmas to make sure that THEY had a merry Christmas.  Sometimes you just have to force yourself and fall apart after they go to bed.”  According to the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention, the point at which a person feels as if he/she is able to resume a “normal” routine varies and is part of the grieving process. IT DOES NOT indicate how much a survivor misses the person who has died, nor is it a measure of how much they loved the person who died by suicide.  For Rosemary, establishing new traditions has been helpful, and healing.  “I always go to church on Christmas Eve to remember my mother.  She loved going to that service every year.  The quiet and peace helps me focus on the ‘reason for the season’ and settles me a bit.”  She also suggests comforts such as travel/hotel stays where someone else handles all of the work.  Setting an extra place setting at the holiday table for a lost loved one, lighting a candle, putting out a picture, or having a pen and paper and jar ready to receive hand written memories of that person are some small gestures her family makes in their efforts to steer through the emotional challenges of the holiday season.

Some twenty-two years ago, Sally Willard also lost a loved one to suicide.  Her recovery is never-ending, but she too has found some effective approaches which support her as the seasonal festivities begin and the year draws to a close.  “I am finally pretty relaxed and accepting of Sarah’s suicide, and therefore feel okay about the upcoming holidays. I even look forward to them at this point in my recovery,” shares Ms. Willard.  “In terms of coping strategies I can recommend, I think one of the most useful actions is to be in touch with other survivors. If you don’t know another survivor, go to a Safe Place group, if possible. Have a plan for the day, whether it’s Hannukah or Christmas or New Year’s.”  And, one of the new traditions she has incorporated into her season is to exchange Christmas stockings with her partner.  Sally echoes Ms. Hesieler’s sentiments on being cheerful again…  “Definitely okay to be happy again,” says she.

It is estimated that there are about 15 million Americans who have become survivors of suicide during the past 25 years. The Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention wants you to know that you are not alone! There are resources to help with the grieving process and share the following:


Carrying On:
Parish House of the First Parish Unitarian Church, One Powderhouse Road, The Great Room, Groton, MA.  Contact:  Steve Boczenowski at or call 978-448-5013

See A New Sun Foundation:
First Church Unitarian, 19 Foster Street, Littleton, MA.  Contact: Barbara at or call 978-486-4928

Samaritans of Merrimack Valley Safe Place:
A program of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley.

  1. St. John’s Episcopal Church, 705 Hale Street, Beverly, MA 01915
  2. St. Michael’s Parish, 196 Main Street, North Andover, MA

The Survivors of Suicide  and Alliance for Hope websites also offer a number of resources for those who have lost a loved one to suicide.

A special thanks to Rosemary Heiseler and Sally Willard for sharing their personal stories with us for this article.



Proof that Santa Really Does Exist!

Posted in Community, Donations on December 11th, 2017 with No Comments

Some nine years ago, longtime Andover residents Carol Reid and Allen Townsend took on the task of playing Santa.  They had played the role in a previous chapter when their two sons were growing up.  But, this time they would help play the part for a much larger audience… their church.  As the coordinators of Christ Church in Andover’s holiday gift program, each December Ms. Reid and Mr. Townsend collect and disperse Christmas presents for roughly 100 children in our Family Services community.  “It’s important to give back.  Allen and I, we really feel that every child should have  gift to open on Christmas,” said Ms. Reid who also serves on the Family Services’ Board of Directors.  “Offering our time to coordinate the holiday gift program, we get back so much more than we give.”

Hats, mittens, books and assorted toys for children…  sorting through the gifts (all donated by members of the church community) can prove to be a a tall order.  But, Ms. Reid and Mr. Townsend manage it all with ease – and big smiles as a team of Family Services staff members fills a fleet of cars with the assorted packages on a Monday morning.  Ms. Reid and Mr. Townsend estimate that through the years, the program has provided holiday gifts to over 900 children ranging in age from infancy through seventeen.  Despite their enormous gift of time in managing the program each year, they are deflective of praise and instead point to the team effort of the larger church community.  “We are grateful for everyone who pitches in to help us including Robert Jason Salon of Andover, the Christ Church Children’s Center and also all of the folks who give of their time and talent to hand knit winter hats.”

Family Services extends a great big THANK YOU for the difference Carol and Allen make in the lives of so many children at Christmas time.  As one Family Services’ staff member commented as she transported the last batch of gifts to her car, “Allen and Carol, every year you prove to a lot of people that Santa really exists!”

Meet Giovann: Big Friends Little Friends’ December Mentee of the Month

Posted in Mentoring on December 5th, 2017 with No Comments

Watching football on a Sunday afternoon is much more fun with a wide-eyed young fan cheering along.  Video games and football are favorites of our December Mentee of the Month, eight year old Giovann, of Lawrence.  “Gio”, as he likes to be called, is one of many children among the ages of 6 – 14 waiting to be matched with a caring adult mentor through Big Friends Little Friends – a program of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley.

A laidback and compassionate child, Gio enjoys spending time with his family, and activities like board games, bowling and going to the movies. A mentor who could patiently encourage Gio as he develops his reading and writing skills would be an important support.  Introducing new activities, while taking an interest in Gio’s passion for technology, will be great ways to grow the mentoring relationship. You may even find yourself hooked on one of Gio’s favorite concoctions–a pancake and chicken nugget sandwich!

Please contact at the Big Friends Little Friends program today to get started being a mentor.

Big Friends Little Friends, a program of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, is a mentoring program that matches volunteer adult mentors with youth, ages 6-14, who could benefit from a relationship with a positive adult role model. “Bigs,” who provide friendship, guidance, and support for their “Little,” get together 1.5-2 hours a week for a minimum of one year. Big Friends Little Friends serves 15 towns in the Merrimack Valley.


If it’s Wednesday, it’s Classes de Ingles…

Posted in Events, Uncategorized on December 4th, 2017 with No Comments

Teachable moments…  there are many throughout the course of the week at our Family and Community Resource Center (FRC) located on Broadway in Lawrence.  On Wednesdays, those moments are brought to us by Delia Nakano.  From 10:30 – 12 each week, Delia can be found at her whiteboard at the head of a standing room only classroom brimming with men and women immersed in the study of English.  The students arrive early and on task – as though they are reporting for work.  Some are on hand to brush up on their second language and others to tackle it for the first time.  Regardless of their level of ability, Delia expects them to show up fully for her 90 minute (cell phone free) sessions.  And, show up they do.

“We were so fortunate to be able to bring Delia in through some grant funding we received in 2015,” reflected the Family and Community Resource Center’s Director Lisette Cid as she noted Ms. Nakano’s ability to multi-task on the fly and also adapt in her large classroom environment.  “The students, they really love her.  Delia is patient and kind and thorough, AND able to facilitate all of the different learning levels of her students.  She offers them a little bit of everything and insists that they be present.”  Writing and reciting the alphabet and numbers from 1 – 100, the class is a study in agency, with an emphasis on focus, staying engaged and making the most of their weekly time together.  The lessons cover not only the basics, but also the nuances of a very complicated language.  In doing so, there are bursts of oral/spoken exercises mixed in with some serious (independent) note taking.  And while there are some pauses for light moments and warm smiles, pages and folders and binders leave full as the class wraps up just before lunch.

In a recent interview, the filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan reflected, “I’ve always found people making an effort, taking care of each other in the face of what they’re carrying around, very dramatic and moving.”  His sentiment very much speaks to the nature of the Family and Community Resource Center’s work with their English classes and their full range of community programming.  If you would like to learn more about their upcoming classes and other services, please call 978-975-8800.  Coming in the new year, don’t miss the FRC’s Saturday morning Sabado de Ejercicios from 10:00 – 12 noon.  This workshop is part of the Family and Community Resource Center’s ongoing wellness series and will offer participants a blend of exercise demonstrations and nutrition programming.


Mounting Needs for Displaced Victims of Hurricane Maria… Please Help

Posted in Community, Donations, Uncategorized on December 1st, 2017 with No Comments

For those of us accustomed to the punishing New England weather that arrives this time of year, we know full well that in order to combat the elements it takes resilience.  That resilience requires many layers including, nutritious food, hats, mittens, boots, proper outerwear, and the support of a compassionate community.  Family Services has been at the forefront assisting the victims of Hurricane Maria, and that work continues with mounting needs as we approach the cold winter months ahead.  Many of the families arriving here daily have never experienced a New England winter.  If you will, just imagine this added obstacle to their transition.  Please join Family Services’ Family and Community Resource Center, in conjunction with Isabel Melendez, in helping to provide winter clothing and food to the many families and children who were affected by Hurricane Maria and are now arriving in Lawrence from Puerto Rico.  We are currently in urgent need of:

 Gently worn winter clothing
 Gently worn winter shoes
 Coats, hats, gloves
 Baby wipes
 Diapers for children and adults
 Hygiene products: Razors, deodorant, soap,
feminine products, shampoo, conditioner
 Canned food, Rice, Oil, Adobo, snacks etc.

Items for donation can be dropped off at the General Donovan School 145 Franklin Street in Lawrence, MA, between the hours of 8:30 and 3:30 PM Monday – Friday.  For more information, please contact Family Services Family and Community Resource Center at:  978-975-8800, or Isabel Melendez at:  978-682-3322.  Thank you for your help.


“We All Want Families to Be Happy…” The Shared Mission of the Greater Lawrence Fathers & Family Network

Posted in Community, Events, Fatherhood, Uncategorized on December 1st, 2017 with No Comments

It’s a Thursday morning and some twenty or so Merrimack Valley Program Directors and Social Workers are gathered with a shared passion… they want families to be happy.  It’s that simple.  The group is a blend of men and women all highly engaged in vital work on the frontlines fueling programs which help to strengthen the often fragile structure between parents and children.  Some of the agencies represented for this particular meeting are; Healthy Families of Lawrence, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, Childrens Friend and Family Services, and the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.  The group meets six times annually as part of the Greater Lawrence Fathers and Family Network, hosted by Family Services of the Merrimack Valley.  On this Thursday, the network is diving into the topic of how fathers can build and foster healthy relationships with their children.  As Carlos of Childrens Friend and Family Services put it, “We are all looking to progress in the work that we do.  What I get most out of these meetings is the brainstorming and chance to share resources with others.”

“You need to be intentional, and you need to practice,” urges Luis Estevez who oversees some of Family Services’ parenting programs and is the November meeting’s presenter.  “Your child is a gift that you receive.  Fathers need to be telling their children ‘I’m your father, and I’m here for you,’ this is what commitment looks like.”  It’s a subject about which he is clearly passionate – each point he makes imprinted by not only his over thirty years of professional practice, but also by his personal experience as a father himself to (adult) twin daughters.  Frequently weaving in his personal parenting experience raising two girls, Estevez brings the topic of the day to life by lightheartedly sharing some of the challenges he’s faced.  He speaks of the importance of connection and how humility is the essential ingredient in cultivating strong bonds, suggesting that natural connections between dads and their kids can often begin around language/conversation and also by sharing meals together.

The Fathers and Family Network gatherings typically conclude with a generous exchange of information – an opportunity for everyone in attendance to pose some questions, communicate programming news, and most importantly learn from the real life experiences of the others on hand.  Umi, a dad and also a Parent Educator at Childrens Friend and Family Services, sums up his morning as this, “What am I taking away from this morning’s workshop?  I’m gaining perspective on fatherhood and what is is really like to raise a child.”

“Love equals the welfare of others,” reminds Estevez as the group heads off to continue the work.  A fitting note to end on!  The Greater Lawrence Fathers and Family Network educational meetings hosted by Family Services are free and open to all area providers.  If you are interested in learning more about the network or future programming, please contact Family Services’ Family Programs Director Betsy Green at: