Posted in Uncategorized on June 2nd, 2020
As an organization whose mission is rooted in compassion and respect for all people, Family Services is deeply troubled by the recent events in our nation. We work every day to help people overcome obstacles so that they can live happy, healthy lives. Racism and oppression are obstacles that we must address as individuals, as an organization, and as a nation – and they must be addressed now.
Human dignity and equality are values that should cause no controversy. They are values that should permeate every interaction that we have with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. When those values are not upheld, we must take action. It is incumbent upon every person and every institution to determine how to be part of a solution. To that end, Family Services will redouble its efforts to lift up our community, to support individuals who face the obstacles of racism and oppression, and to advocate that all voices be heard. As an organization, we will continue the work begun years ago to constantly evaluate the ways in which our policies, procedures, and activities advance the values of dignity and equality, and make changes when we’re falling short.
These times are extremely stressful. The COVID-19 crisis combined with the eruption of civil unrest has everyone feeling unmoored. As always, during moments of struggle it is vital that we focus on the ways in which we, as people and as a community, can be a force for good. We are looking forward to seeing the progress that we will make as a nation and maintain hope for our future.

COVID-19 Response Update: May 1, 2020

Posted in Uncategorized on May 1st, 2020

As the world, our country, and our community grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, we want to let you know how Family Services is responding.  As you can imagine, the health and safety of Family Services’ staff, and all the individuals and families we serve remains our top priority.  Because we share in the collective duty to strengthen and care for our community, we want you to be informed about how this pandemic has affected our operations and our programs.

Since March 13, 2020 Family Services’ staff have been working remotely and delivering as much programming and support as possible.  Although COVID-19 is primarily a physical health crisis, the toll it’s taking on mental health is enormous.  Fear and isolation are the hallmarks of this pandemic.  Family Services cannot treat a fever, but we can help people manage anxiety, cope with stress, and maintain self-care.  To that end, we are taking the following steps to protect the health and build the resilience of our clients, volunteers, staff and stakeholders:

  • Family Services’ leadership is working closely with a large group of other nonprofit and municipal leaders to coordinate a community-wide response to COVID-19 and ensure that services for nutrition assistance, housing, health, education and emotional wellness are being ramped up and effectively coordinated.
  • Family Services has collected and disseminated donations of basic needs items to 100 families with young children. Going forward, Family Services is collaborating with the Merrimack Valley YMCA to coordinate the distribution of essential items for babies through their existing food pantry. 
  • Crisis helplines are being provided by trained volunteers and staff to support individuals struggling with the emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Online trainings and workshops are being provided, including:
  • Workshops on self-care being offered to front line workers at Greater Lawrence nonprofits.
  • Training on “mental health 101” being provided to front line workers in Greater Lawrence to help non-clinical professionals support the mental health of their constituents and colleagues.
  • Parenting support workshops being provided (in English and Spanish) to all community members to give parents ideas, advice and guidance on coping with difficult behaviors at home.
  • Relationship education and support being is provided (in English and Spanish) to help couples navigate the stress of financial, emotional and family stress.

In addition to these newly added services, Family Services’ existing programs are adapting and

  • Our Family & Community Resource Center, located at One Union Street in Lawrence, is reaching out to clients individually, assisting families to o those able to utilize technology. 
  • Our Mental Health Clinic, located at 430 N. Canal Street in Lawrence, continues to see nearly 200 clients each week. Most of this professional mental health treatment is being provided by telehealth.  However, because our clinic is categorized as an essential business, our office remains open (Tuesday – Thursday from 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.) in order to provide treatment to individuals who cannot access telehealth sessions.  
  • Youth mentoring programs continue to support (and create!) youth mentor matches and in doing so, have come up with a lot of very creative activities for matches to participate in together (including a Tik Tok dance competition, face mask contest, and online board games). Mentoring staff are also helping youth and families find and receive needed resources.  While contacting families, it became clear that parents were struggling to help their child(ren) with remote learning.  Mentoring staff have responded by creating an online tutoring program, which may be opened up to the community at large.
  • Court Appointed Special Advocates started the social distancing situation by training 15 new CASA volunteers via an 8 hour remote training session. Since then, the program has been assigned to nine new child abuse and neglect cases.  Volunteers continue to make contact with children on their cases and are monitoring the health and safety of children as best they can remotely.
  • The Samaritans of Merrimack Valley crisis helpline (being answered remotely by a trained cadre of volunteers) is experiencing an increase in calls, mostly resulting from people struggling with fears related to COVID-19. Individuals who participate in the Samaritans’ support groups (Safe Place group for loss survivors and attempt survivors groups) are being supported via online support groups.  Trainings to organizations that work with high risk individuals are also being moved to a remote platform.
  • Because our youth development services rely on in-person group activities taking place in school and community-based settings, recreating those programs remotely has been a slow and challenging process. However, Family Services youth development staff have maintained contact with youth individually and are currently planning group programming in collaboration with the Lawrence Public School system.
  • Parenting programs also rely on in person group activities, which have been put on hold. However, parenting program staff continue to reach out to clients and provide parenting support individually and offer online groups, and connecting families with important information and resources and assisting with critical needs.

Family Services entered this crisis in a strong financial position.  The organization has not yet had to cut back on staffing or service provision.  Many of the organization’s funders (private foundations and government grantors) have been very understanding and flexible in the use of funds, enabling us to shift operations and priorities.  Several of our fee for service programs (mental health clinic and court mandated parent education) are feeling the financial impact of not being fully open for business.  Most notably, Family Services fundraising activities have been dramatically impacted, as our annual gala and two additional fundraising events have been delayed.

In the short term, we feel confident in our ability to maintain all staff and all services.  Although the volume and effectiveness of many of our services are greatly diminished, especially those that rely on group activities, in the past week alone, our staff connected with over 1,000 clients!  As the future of the virus and the economy remains uncertain, we will continue to be creative, flexible and resourceful to do all we can to support individuals and families.

There will be a long-lasting impact on our communities and there will surely be an increase in demands for services and programs.  At Family Services, we stand ready to respond as needed.  To date, we have been inspired by the humanity and determination we’ve have seen from all corners of our local and larger communities.

Thank you for supporting Family Services as we work to support others.  We wish you good health!

COVID-19 Update, March 29, 2020

Posted in Uncategorized on March 29th, 2020

Family Services Coronavirus Response

***UPDATED March 29, 2020***

Dear Friends,

As news about the COVID-19 virus continues to evolve, the health and safety of our Family Services’ staff, and all the individuals and families our organization serves, is our top priority. Because we share in the collective duty to strengthen and care for our community, we want you to keep you informed of how this pandemic has affected our operations.

As of today (Sunday, March 29, 2020) we are aware of one Family Services staff member who has tested positive for COVID-19.  This individual was last at our One Union Street location on March 16, 2020 and had contact with only three other staff, who have been notified.  The staff member has not been to our central office (430 North Canal Street) for over a month, and is currently experiencing mild symptoms and recovering at home.

Family Services’ staff will continue to work remotely and deliver as much programming and support as we can to our community during these uncertain and unprecedented times.  We are adhering to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as local and state public health authorities. Of course, as we closely monitor the ongoing situation, we will remain flexible and responsive to do the right thing for our community.

As a community partner for more than 160 years, we remain committed to continuing our mission to empower, nurture, and support children and families through life’s challenges to help them reach their full potential. Although this is primarily a physical health crisis, the toll it’s taking on mental health is enormous.  Fear and isolation are the hallmarks of this pandemic.  Family Services cannot treat a fever, but we can help people manage anxiety, cope with stress and maintain self-care.

To that end, I want you to be aware of what we’re doing to ensure the safety and care of all our clients, volunteers, staff and stakeholders:

  1. Our Family & Community Resource Center, located at One Union Street in Lawrence, will remain closed to the community until we receive confirmation from state and local officials that it is safe to re-open. For updated information on our schedule, please visit:
  2. Our Mental Health Clinic, located at 430 N. Canal Street in Lawrence, is categorized as an essential business and will be open to our current clients that are most in need of mental health services Tuesday – Thursday from 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Our professional clinicians will continue to conduct in-person session until tele-health sessions can be established for all clients.  If you are a current client and would like to speak with your clinician, please call: 978-327-6600.
  3. Family Services’ Samaritans helpline is fully staffed and operational.  These uncertain items can lead to feelings of isolation, sadness and depression.  If you or anyone you know needs to reach out for support during this difficult time, our Samaritans volunteers are here for you.
    • Toll Free: 1-866-912-4673
    • Merrimack Valley: 978-327-6607
    • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  1. Until further notice, all Family Services’ non-essential personnel are working remotely and we have asked both staff and volunteers to refrain from in-person meetings. That said, we are working to stay connected to young people via creative online mentoring sessions and opportunities, and developing ways to continue to build and strengthen our community.  We will re-evaluate these decisions as more information and direction becomes available from the CDC as well as state and local government agencies, and we will make decisions that continue to put the safety and well-being of our clients and staff first.
  2. Family Services accepting donations of basic needs items for families with young children. If you are able to make a donation of diapers (any size), pull ups, wipes, or formula (Similac Advance or Similar Soy Isomil), please email

There will be a long-lasting impact on our communities and there will surely be an increase in demand for services and programs.  At Family Services, we stand ready to respond as needed. In doing so, we continue to require the help of the community more than ever. If you would like to support our evolving efforts, please visit to help us to continue our important work!

Leading in times of uncertainty is always a challenge. And yet I have been inspired by the humanity and determination I have seen from all corners of our local and larger communities.

We stand ready to assist the community and encourage you to be courageous in doing what is right for your families, your organizations and our community. We are always better together!


Elizabeth Sweeney, Chief Executive Officer

Fathers and Family Network

Posted in Fatherhood on January 28th, 2019

Family Services is honored to operate the local Fathers & Family Network, which is part of a statewide networking and training group for professionals who work with fathers. This statewide network is generously funded and supported by The Children’s Trust.

The next Fathers & Family Network event is this Thursday, January 31, 2019 from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at Family Services’ central office located at 430 North Canal St. Lawrence. This month, we are pleased to welcome Michael Ramos, Fathers and Family Coordinator at The Children’s Trust. Mr. Ramos coordinates Fatherhood activities for The Children’s Trust, which, in addition to the Fathers & Family Network, also includes the Nurturing Fathers Program. Nurturing Fathers is a curriculum-based program that helps fathers build and strengthen positive parenting attitudes and behaviors.

Individuals interested in attending the January 31 meeting of the Fathers & Family Network are asked to RSVP to Betsy Green at Lunch will be provided.

Welcome to Family Services!

Posted in Community on December 19th, 2018

There’s quite a lot packed under the roof here at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley (FSMV).  From our Mentoring Programs, our Family Programs, a Mental Health Clinic, Essex County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley, and on to our Administrative Offices… there’s a swell of traffic in and out of 430 North Canal Street on any given day.  Fielding that flow of clients and colleagues and assorted other visitors to Family Services is our fabulous reception team, headed up by Connie Rascon (pictured left).  A smile needs no translating, and that is evidenced daily when visitors enter our lobby and are welcomed with that universal language. 

Rascon has been receiving FSMV callers (by telephone and in person) for over three years.  Her role managing the reception area involves ongoing multi-tasking and being asked a million questions – often into the early evening hours.  Her strategy?  “It varies daily,” says she.  “But I try to let everyone know where I am in the process of finishing a task – just so they know I am working on it!  Even if it’s just to say, ‘I’m still looking into it.’ ”  As that first impression our visitors have of Family Services, she and her colleagues go out of their way to try and make them feel comfortable by welcoming them all by name.  “I notice a lot of people appreciate that gesture,” shares Connie.  Enjoying relaxing music and binge watching Friends on television fuels her in her off hours and helps her to show up with a smile – day in and day out.  We appreciate YOU Connie and our entire Family Services team for the difference you make!

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, a non-profit social service agency engaged in game changing work which helps children and families live their BEST lives, was established in 1854 as the Lawrence City Mission.  During its first 70 years, the organization was primarily concerned with providing material assistance to newly arrived mill workers in the City of Lawrence.  With the advent of the New Deal and the implementation of federal programs in the 1930’s, the organization shifted its mission to align with the national trend in the field of social work which focused on self-improvement and counseling.  This shift inspired a name change to reflect its new focus, and the City Mission became Family Service Association of Greater Lawrence (FSAGL).  The 1980s brought another significant shift as the organization expanded to provide group programs focused on care and prevention.  Since 1985, the organization has grown from a staff of seven to a staff of 80+ providing over 20 treatment, prevention, and outreach and education programs. In 2013, Family Services adopted a new name, Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, which reflects the growth in the scope and reach of its services over its nearly 160-year history.  

Our purpose at Family Services is to drive outcomes, and we continue do so by nurturing inner strengths, teaching life skills, championing emotional wellness and providing vital community-based resources in the Merrimack Valley.  If you or someone you know would like to be a part of the work we do here, please check out our current employment opportunities on our Job Postings page.



Grandparents as Caregivers

Posted in Community on December 11th, 2018

Nationwide, 2.7 million grandparents are raising grandchildren, and according to census figures, about one-fifth of those have incomes that fall below the poverty line.  A recent PBS News Hour spotlight on this issue suggests that their ranks are increasing with the number of grandparents raising grandchildren in the United States up 7 percent from 2009.  Factors such as the opiate epidemic, military deployment and a growth in the number of women incarcerated continue to bolster this trend.

Many of these grandparents are living on fixed incomes and managing chronic illnesses or a disability.  “People who step forward, step forward because there is a crisis in their family and apparently don’t take into account their own limitations,” said Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto, who has researched grandparent caregiving in the United States.  Raising grandchildren takes a heavy toll on grandparents according to a 2018 article entitled This is the Age of Grandparents in The Atlantic.  Higher-than-normal rates of depression, sleeplessness, emotional problems, and chronic health problems like hypertension and diabetes; feelings of exhaustion, loneliness, and isolation; a sense of having too little privacy, and too little time to spend with their spouses, friends, and other family members.  All of these stressors heighten the pressure put upon those grandparents who assume the role of primary caregiver.

Here in the Merrimack Valley especially, there exists a disproportionately high rate of poverty among grandparents raising grandchildren, with more than 40 percent reporting unmet economic or social-service needs—for themselves or, more often, their grandchildren.  As more and more grandparents step into parental roles, support services become increasingly essential. That urgency is exhibited in the bi-weekly Grandparent Support Group hosted at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Family & Community Resource Center (FRC) located at One Union Street in Lawrence.  The facilitated bi-lingual group discussions are free and open to to all area grandparents navigating the obstacles associated with raising (or helping to raise) grandchildren.  “Here, we welcome all age groups,” notes the group’s facilitator and FRC Family Partner Maggie DeLosSantos.  “We have about 10 parents/grandparents attending each session.  They really look forward to coming here.  These gatherings offer an opportunity to exchange ideas and ask questions – to share struggles and solutions.”  Just hearing from others balancing similar responsibilities, people who have been there, can uplift spirits.  

Although the burden can be overwhelming, helping to raise grandchildren also affords grandparents a golden opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child.  The FRC Grandparent Support Group offers that forum for recognizing and seizing such opportunities.  “The content here in our group is great.  But, what keeps me coming back is Maggie, our facilitator,” comments Isabel (pictured above at right), a longtime participant.  To that, Maggie replies, “I make certain that everyone in the group can stay connected outside of our meetings as things come up back in their homes.  It’s great to see how they really do stay in touch with one another.”  This week, the group will celebrate these bonds (along with their grandchildren) at the FRC’s annual holiday celebration.  “Good friendships have formed as a result of our time together here sharing our experiences,” shares Ms. DeLosSantos with a bright smile as she concludes another productive morning empowering parents to be their best selves as grandparents raising children.

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley partners with the Department of Children and Families to provide the Family & Community Resource Center, located at One Union Street in Lawrence to help families raise children in healthy, stable homes. All services are free and open to all families in Essex County.  To learn more about upcoming programming or other offerings at our Family & Community Resource Center, please visit their program page, or call 978-975-8800.

Services Include:

  • Assessment and family support planning.
  • Peer-to-peer support groups for youth, grandparents raising grandchildren, and “Parents Helping Parents”.
  • Life skills workshops for youth, parents and families, such as bullying prevention, financial literacy and behavior management.
  • Cultural, social, recreational, and community service activities, including holiday gatherings, bingo nights, and National Night Out.
  • Information and referral services.
  • English as a Second Language classes. is a nonprofit site also offering grandparents resources, tools and ideas on how to get help and make the most of raising grandchildren.



Spa Treatment…

Posted in Community on December 6th, 2018

Fitness Saturdays Empower Parents to Be Well

It’s a Saturday morning, and a dozen women fill a conference style room which has, for a few hours, been transformed into a yoga studio.  Rainbow colored yoga mats cover the floor, chairs and tables have been moved off to the side and the atmosphere is… tranquil.  The instructor cues the students to focus on their breathing as she begins to lead them in practice of the ancient eight-limbed system of yoga – a practice much revered for its myriad healing properties.  From the determined looks on the participants’ faces and the energy building in the room, these women are all in.  That momentum is sustained as the instructor leads them deeper into a series of postures and then eventually into a few minutes of quiet Savasana (rest) on their mats as the class concludes.  The instructor is Certified Nutritionist Belkis Fermin, and yoga represents just one portion of the three-part Fitness Saturday wellness curriculum offered monthly at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Family and Community Resource Center.  The physical wellness component is bolstered by a nutrition-centered lecture and cooking demonstration.  While their children are cared for on site, the freely offered programming allows area parents to pause and take some time out for themselves to focus on their own well being as well as that of their family.

Education, Exercise and Cooking…  Ms. Fermin takes care to distribute equal weight to each of these areas throughout her two hour workshops.  “I try to relate our curriculum to things that are of concern for the parents who participate.  I often begin my lesson plan by curating a recipe, and then making certain modifications (i.e., swapping out brown sugar for white, or using whole wheat flour where flour is called for).  Parents need to be aware of what they are feeding their kids.”  Last month’s Fitness Saturday focused on nutrition problems commonly experienced by adolescents, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.  Sharing content from Kids Health, Fermin centered her lesson on warning signs for parents and best practices for supporting children who present symptoms of these types of eating disorders.  Serious medical illnesses, eating disorders often go along with other problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, and substance use and can lead to the development of serious physical health problems, such as heart conditions or kidney failure.  Throughout the program’s educational session, the parents are invited to chime in with their own personal questions and concerns of which there is plenty.

The exercise, or movement, session provides participants with an opportunity to engage in some self-care which the instructor believes is the foundation of a family’s well being.  During this component accessible practices (such as yoga) are demonstrated and (gently) prescribed as a wise antidote to the stress that naturally presents when balancing the responsibilities of a job with caring for children and a home.  Next up is the cooking – where, once again, the approach is hands-on.  Cutting boards and knives are dispersed upon which green and red peppers are diced and cilantro and onions are chopped.  “The cooking component is our last portion of these wellness sessions,” shares Ms. Fermin.  “Participants really enjoy this 30 or so minutes.  It’s where the lesson comes alive!”  As her recipe unfolds, the conference room is once again transformed (this time into a kitchen), and the scent of garlic and tomato fills the air.  There is continued conversation and inquiry which the instructor fields in real time before the group sits down to enjoy their finished product and an exhale after a full morning devoted to being well.

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley partners with the Department of Children and Families to provide the Family & Community Resource Center, located at One Union Street in Lawrence to help families raise children in healthy, stable homes. All services are free and open to all families in Essex County.  To learn more about upcoming wellness or programming or other offering at our Family & Community Resource Center, please visit their program page, or call 978-975-8800.

Services Include:

  • Assessment and family support planning.
  • Peer-to-peer support groups for youth, grandparents raising grandchildren, and “Parents Helping Parents”.
  • Life skills workshops for youth, parents and families, such as bullying prevention, financial literacy and behavior management.
  • Cultural, social, recreational, and community service activities, including holiday gatherings, bingo nights, and National Night Out.
  • Information and referral services.
  • English as a Second Language classes.





Posted in Mentoring on December 5th, 2018

“There is absolutely no greater feeling than selflessly serving someone else.”

Last week Family Services took a moment out of the busy season to pause and recognize volunteer mentors from our Stand & Deliver, Success Mentors and Big Friends Little Friends programs. In doing so, our mentoring team did an incredible job of highlighting the great work of each of these three programs, and saluting the volunteers who drive their outcomes. “Tonight is all about you,” noted Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s CEO Liz Sweeney as she honored the mentors in attendance for our Mentor Appreciation reception. “While I applaud our staff for the great work they do with our mentoring programs, they cannot do it alone.”

Sweeney then went on to share the story of the gentlemen honored (by Family Services) as  “Mentor of the Year”… Scott Paganelli.  Scott (pictured above with Family Services CEO Liz Sweeney) has been matched in our Big Friends Little Friends program for about a year and half with Bryan.  When our mentoring team approached Scott about mentoring a 10 year old autistic boy, Scott did not hesitate to say “yes” as he knows personally what it is like to live with a disability.  Since being matched, Scott has been the perfect mentor for Bryan, consistently demonstrating great patience and ingenuity in his outings with his mentee.  As a result of their relationship, Bryan has flourished.

We recently caught up with Scott and asked him why “giving back” is, for him, such a priority in life.  To which he replied…   “I was raised by two fantastic, supportive parents who continue to provided  lifelong examples of serving others and volunteerism, which I have throughout my life attempted emulate. Additionally, others, too numerous to count, have been incredibly generous to me throughout my life, with their time and guidance. I’ve greatly enjoyed my time working with children especially, as an adult scouter with the Boy Scouts of America, founder of The Challenger Sports League of Greensboro, NC, an award-winning 501c3 providing sports and recreational opportunities for Greater Greensboro’s disabled youth and now with Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Big Friends Little Friends mentoring program. I’m grateful to have the full support of my wife, Rose, who has embraced Bryan as a member of our family.”

Tragically, a year into their match, Bryan was diagnosed with leukemia and spent several months undergoing medical treatment in Boston.  During this time Scott traveled to Boston to visit Bryan on a number of occasions, cheering up his Little Friend with his favorite food, toys and other tokens of his affection.  His presence has been a tremendous source of support for Bryan and his mother throughout this emotional ordeal.  In addition to his friendship, Scott also launched a Go Fund Me page which helped to raise thousands of dollars to offset Bryan’s medical expenses and support his mother who had lost her job due to the need to be by Bryan’s side in the hospital. All the while, Scott searched for other resources for the family and found a grant that pays transportation costs for kids undergoing cancer treatment.  Scott applied for the grant on the family’s behalf and is awaiting a decision on the request.  “Serving as a mentor to my Little buddy, Bryan, has truly forced me to step considerably outside of my traditional comfort zone,  particularly in light of his ongoing challenges as a young fellow on the autism spectrum, and the unanticipated challenges his cancer diagnosis brought to his family this year.  There is absolutely no greater feeling than selflessly serving someone else, especially when you are supporting such a fantastic, loving family.” 

In the midst of his incredible commitment to Bryan and his family, Scott supports our Big Friends Little Friends program on countless other fronts – attending virtually every event since he has been matched including Bowl a Strike for Kids and our annual Rhapsody Gala. He also serves on our Big Friends Little Friends Program Support Committee helping us to source pricing for match activities. In closing, we asked Scott if there are lessons that Bryan teaches him?  “I went into this new adventure with him with a bit of apprehension and a general understanding of the importance established routines are to individuals on the spectrum.  I also know how life can throw you unexpected curve balls without notice.  This was one of my greatest concerns.  During one of our very first outings, Bryan and I had a thorough discussion on the importance of flexibility.  Bryan responded with great understanding, enthusiasm and gratitude.  His willingness to be flexible while we scramble to come up with plans B, C and sometimes even D at the last minute, is inspiring, particularly as I know how challenging this is for him.  Also, his eagerness to attempt small life lessons, skills and new experiences such as using a knife to cut apples for a homemade apple pie, or having him help me work the gas pump to fill my tank on one of our adventures, makes me appreciate how much he is stepping outside of his own comfort zone, how much he is giving to our relationship and the trust he places in me.”

As she concluded her praise for the service of the  volunteers who filled the Mentor Appreciation reception, Ms. Sweeney extended the organization’s collective appreciation with… “What can be said about people who volunteer other than THANK YOU.”  We are so grateful to Scott and to all of our mentors for your selfless service of others and for the difference YOU make in the lives of these children!

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Big Friends Little Friends is a youth mentoring program that matches caring adult mentors with young people who could benefit from a relationship with a positive adult role model. The goal of the program is to develop the positive potential of young people by providing them with support, guidance and friendship.  Serving fifteen towns in the Merrimack Valley, each year our Big Friends Little Friends program matches approximately 100 children with mentors.  To learn more about the many wonderful children who hope to be paired with an adult mentor, please contact our Big Friends Little Friends program at 978-327-6600.

Big Friends are caring and responsible people who:

  • Are from all different backgrounds, races and religions, and like to have fun.
  • Are committed to being a consistent role-model; to their continued mentor training; and to sharing, listening and visiting with their Little Friend.
  • Are able to relate positively and in a meaningful manner to a growing boy or girl.

Little Friends are boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 14 who:

  • Reside in our service area.
  • Have a desire to be in the program and want to have a Big Friend.
  • Have the approval and support of their parents or guardians to participate in the program.
  • Are from all different backgrounds, races and religions.

Our mentoring program service area includes children from: Amesbury, Andover, Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, Lawrence, Merrimac, Methuen, Newbury, Newburyport, North Andover, Rowley, Salisbury, and West Newbury.  Please consider helping us make our long wait list vanish this holiday season by signing up to be a Big Friend today!  Check out one of our great matches… Omar and Boris.


Family Traditions and Buckets of Candy

Posted in Community, Donations, Events on November 28th, 2018

It’s No Small Feat

Gibbet Hill Grill co-owner, Kate Webber, is at it again this holiday season with her magnificent gingerbread creations. This season, in addition to the restaurant’s annual fireplace mantle display, she has created an additional gingerbread house… actually it’s a (stunning) castle, and on December 12 it is to be raffled off and awarded to one lucky winner. Family Services of the Merrimack Valley is extremely honored as this year the Gibbet Hill Grill team will be sharing the raffle’s proceeds with our organization. Tickets are on sale now through December 12.  With the gingerbread castle drawing taking place well before the Christmas holiday, the lucky winner will enjoy plenty of time to adore (and indulge).  Raffle tickets may be purchased in person at Gibbet Hill Grill, located at 61 Lowell Road in Groton, MA , or by visiting the restaurant’s website.  We recently caught up with Kate during Gibbet Hill’s busy holiday season…

We hear that these gingerbread creations are a (family) tradition?  Would you care to share any backstory on that?
I started making gingerbread houses with my aunt when I was two years old (I was admittedly just sitting on the kitchen counter).  It was something I continued doing with her through my childhood.  Hers were always elaborate, and so I learned to make involved and crazy buildings from the beginning.  Eventually I started making them on my own either alone or with my mother.  They got more and more elaborate as the years went on, but were only for my family.  When we opened our first restaurant in 2004, I realized I needed to step up my game because a lot of people were going to see them!

Incidentally, my aunt still makes gingerbread houses every year and raffles them off for charity.  Some of her most impressive endeavors have been the US Supreme Court Building and a model of the White House were it set up to be environmentally friendly.

What called to the restaurant to steer your generosity, this holiday season, towards the work we do here at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley?
One of the core values of the Webber Restaurant Group is Community, and therefore we like to support non-profits directly around us.  Family Services of the Merrimack Valley is doing such important work assisting the people of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover who were displaced and affected by the devastating gas fires in September.  Although it happened over two months ago, so many people are still being deeply affected by that tragedy, and any help is incredibly necessary.  At the same time that they are working on this recovery, Family Services of the Merrimack Valley continues to provide family and parenting support, youth programs, mentoring, counseling, and child services to that community.  It’s no small feat.

Any special tips you can offer to the amateur gingerbread house architect?  Are there particular candies which are for your team a must?
First and foremost, it’s important to have fun.  For a regular-sized gingerbread house, use canned icing from the grocery store to hold your walls together.  Use a lot of it, and everything will stick together just fine!  Be patient, and wait for the walls to dry before you put all the candy on.  And use candy canes for decorations!  It makes everything more festive.

Any numbers you can share in terms of how many pounds of candy/sugar went in to this amazing castle you have built?
I know that overall this entire season we used 30 pounds of sugar and 6 dozen eggs for the two houses we made, the one for the raffle and the one that sits on the mantle at Gibbet Hill.  As for how many pounds of candy… that number is immeasurable.  Buckets.  I can say that putting the Necco wafers on this one castle took approximately 8 man hours, several of those put in by my 92-year-old grandmother. 

The Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund is accepting donations through December 31, 2018. If you would like to to support the thousands of people affected by this crisis, or learn more about local relief efforts, please visit the Essex County Community Foundation’s Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund



Proud to be a SUCCESS MENTOR!

Posted in Mentoring on November 28th, 2018

So much of being a mentor is just being there for somebody.

Last month, Family Services of the Merrimack Valley kicked off year two of our Success Mentors program at Lawrence High School.  In the words of our Chief Executive Officer Liz Sweeney… “What can be said about people who volunteer, other than THANK YOU.”  One of the many volunteers we would like to thank is 9th grade Biology teacher Maria (Maya) Jarostchuk (pictured here with her mentee sophmore Surenisha Velasquez).  Maya is back for her second year serving as Surenisha’s mentor.  The mutual respect the two share is remarkable and so inspiring!  Maya recently took the time out of her busy schedule to share her personal experience as a Success Mentor in the form of the following essay.  Thank you Maya!  To learn more about Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s mentoring programs, please visit…

All first year teachers would agree that none of us had any idea what we were doing. We spent the first year in a never-ending mess of lesson plans, behavior systems, grading, parent communication. At the end of most days, we would find ourselves home past dinner time, laying on the floor in the fetal position and eating large amounts of ice cream in order to cope with the stresses of first year teaching. We would fall asleep at night, eyes burning from the hours spent on the computer, with our students’ faces popping into our heads. We would wake up to a 5 am alarm, wishing we had a “normal” job where we got to sit at a desk and interact with zero high schoolers all day.

 I am currently in my second year of teaching 9th grade Biology at Lawrence High School, and every day is different. Some days are sweet, others are sour. On these sour days, I leave work with a bitter feeling in my heart, feeling overworked, underappreciated and completely exhausted. During my first year of teaching, I think I left sour most days… I felt like I was drowning in a sea of grading, lesson planning and meetings, all while trying to stand up in the front of 25 9th graders several times a day and be the authoritative figure who would teach these kids Biology. It felt hopeless.

 Looking back to the previous year, it seems crazy that I would sign up to be a Success Mentor as a first year teacher- I had several mentors myself who were helping me be a better teacher, how was I qualified to mentor a student who truly needed my support? I was not meeting the needs of the 100 + students I taught in the classroom, how could I take on the responsibility of keeping yet another a student on track?

What I learned within the first day of becoming a mentor was that being a mentor is completely different from being a teacher. Students come to Lawrence High School guaranteed to have a teacher for every content for every grade, but they are not guaranteed to have a mentor. Our kids need mentors. They absolutely need them. Mentors are more than just a “nice” or “helpful” teacher. A mentor truly invests not just in the student, but also in the person. We often forget that we are teaching people- these people may be young, they may not be perfect, they may not always do their best work or come to class, but they are people nonetheless. Being a mentor has taught me that our students are people who need to be treated as such. School alone is not going to guarantee success for everyone- some people who come (or don’t) to my Biology class need a little extra support and love, and that is where the line from teacher to mentor must be crossed.

I was paired with Surenisha Velasquez. The first day we met, Surenisha sat me down and explained who she was, what was important to her, and what she needed from me. This seemingly quiet young lady had so much to say, so much to worry about, and so much to ask… her grades and attendance were not due to laziness or an unwillingness to work hard, but rather a lot of external challenges that she was facing. Together, we talked about and worked through some of the struggles that she was having- with schoolwork, attendance and friends. It was amazing how quickly Surenisha went from being my assigned mentee to just another part of my life, a part that was different from the stresses of being a teacher. Taking 30 minutes to eat Wendy’s for lunch was not overwhelming, even when I had work to do. Walking Surenisha across campus to her classroom was no problem at all, even if I was tired or in the middle of something. All of a sudden, I had become a mentor, and what I realize now, is that so much of being a mentor is simply being there for another person.

I can take little credit in the change in Surenisha’s grades, attendance and overall attitude towards school. She did the work. She stayed after school and during lunch to redo or complete missing work. She made sure to come to school every day, even on days where she could have skipped. She made sure to walk away from friends, teachers, or students who were frustrating her. All I did was make sure that I was there for her, and by being there, all I did was give her the space within the school where she felt comfortable and cared for. Surenisha worked extremely hard and was able to get her grades up and pass the 9th grade. She is now a happy 10th grader who is so busy and involved that she only has time to come check in with me once in a while, but it is always with a smile and a million things that are going great.

As a mentor, I thought that I would be teaching my mentee. However, I learned so much from mentoring Surenisha.  Life is prickly sometimes, and it can get extremely prickly for a high schooler who is trying to balance school, work, friends, family and everything that comes with being in high school. As teachers, we see the best and the worst sides of students we teach. Some days we see smiles and effort and 10/10 on classwork, other days we see frowns, tardies and 0/10s. What we have to remember is that we are teaching students, but working with real live people. Sometimes we forget that people are allowed to have bad days, weeks, months or even years. We forget that we should treat all people with kindness and respect. We forget that sometimes the people who seem like they don’t want or need love, actually need it the most. We forget all of this, when we as first, second or even tenth year teachers need the same things. I listened to Surenisha, she listened to me. I complained to Surenisha, she complained to me. I gave Surenisha advice, she gave it right back to me. Being a mentor means to have an equal relationship with another person, to help each other learn from one another and support one another through any challenges.

I still have sour days, I still find myself in the fetal position, and I still eat a lot of ice cream in year 2 of teaching. However, becoming a Success Mentor has done nothing but add sweetness to my experience working at Lawrence High School. Being a teacher is important, but being a mentor is equally if not more important. Mentoring Surenisha has helped ground me in why anyone who works with our youth does the work that we do – because we want to be the adults that help these young people grow into the people that will then help the future young people. We want a world where giving someone support, checking in, asking if they are okay is a regular occurrence. I am proud to be a Success Mentor and feel so fortunate to have gotten to build a relationship with such an incredible young lady.