By Elizabeth Pitts West Hawaii Today email@example.com | Monday, November 11, 2019, 12:05 a.m.
KAILUA-KONA — When former Family Support Hawaii director JoAnn Freed addressed the organization’s supporters and founders at their anniversary party recently, she had one thing to declare repeatedly: “We persist.”
With those words, Family Support Hawaii, which has lasted through the past four decades, is headed into its next 10 years because of the persistence of more than a few hardworking individuals.
“We’ve lasted because of a lot of commitment by the people,” executive director Ray Wofford said. “It’s been a commitment of individuals, a commitment of people in the community, and the effort behind it. Family Support Hawaii is here because of these people that started it and worked so hard.”
At the beginning of this month, Family Support Hawaii celebrated its 40th anniversary at Papa Kona Coffee with its founders, employees, and just a few of the families the organization has always been committed to helping.
Founded by community members who wanted to reach out and help children in need and their families, Family Support Hawaii began as West Hawaii Family Support Council in 1979.
Through the years, the organization has expanded to include multiple family-oriented programs, including Child Development (Early Intervention), Early Head Start, Newborn Enhanced Support Team (NEST), CWS Home Visiting, Fatherhood Initiative, and Youth Development.
Family Support Hawaii has offices in Kailua-Kona and Waimea, as well as a child care center in Kealakekua.
The nonprofit now provides services to more than 3,500 individuals a year on the Big Island.
“Our mission is to provide love and support for our children and help the community and families,” Wofford said. “For example, if a child is born with autism or any sort of disability, we provide in-home services and in-home education through Early Head Start, where we go into low-income homes. These children don’t have the access to the types of things that a lot of us do when we’re growing up.
“We also work with foster children and families in foster care, and we have a fatherhood program that keeps dads connected to their families.”
Annual community events, such as the Serve it Forward tennis tournament, help the nonprofit spread their message and raise money to expand its services. The sixth annual tournament will be held Feb. 8-9, 2020, at the Holua Tennis Center in Keauhou.
Wofford has been executive director of Family Support Hawaii for eight years, and took over the position that started with Freed in 1985. The people at the helm of the nonprofit all have their reasons for being dedicated to their work.
Freed was inspired to join Family Support Hawaii after reading what she described as a heartbreaking newspaper article about an infant’s death on the island after giving birth to her own child.
“I read an article in the West Hawaii Today newspaper about an infant that was abandoned in Ka’u and the consequence of his abandonment was his demise. And I just couldn’t understand that. I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” Freed said. “It did make me decide that when I went back to work, I wanted to work with a group of people that wanted to help make sure that that never happened again.”
Early Head Start director Stacy Brown began her career helping children as a kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles County, California. The school at which she taught was in an area which she described as a gang-heavy, and she learned that in order to really make a difference in a child’s life, she would have to start at the root of the problem.
“I loved teaching, I loved being with the children, and I loved taking them to new heights with their learning, but one thing I didn’t learn when I was in college was the importance of working with the families,” Brown said. “And it wasn’t really until I started working for Head Start that I really began to understand the importance of working with families. …They are their child’s first teachers.”
She found the way to helping families when she moved to the Big Island by joining Family Support Hawaii.
“You just look at the name of our agency and that tells the story right there — family support,” Brown said.
Early Head Start aims to help families through pregnancy, labor, delivery, and infant care and development with socialization groups, educational activities, community events, and supportive home visits.
Single father Jordan Tobias is just one person on the island that Family Support Hawaii and Early Head Start has supported through the years.
Tobias has been a part of Early Head Start for four years, and he is now the program’s policy council vice chairman. The policy council is made up of community members who help make decisions for the program, a challenge Tobias embraces in order to give back to the organization that has helped him.
“I’m a success story but I don’t think I would have been able to succeed without the agency,” Tobias said. “I wouldn’t have been able to succeed without the help I’ve received.”