Families First is a community movement started to help parents provide a safe and productive atmosphere for their children. One of the groupâs first activities was a program hosted by Paynesville Police Chief Bill Drager and Stearns County Deputy Tim Kantos. They met with concerned parents, discussed drug awareness and showed them various samples of drugs the students have access to obtaining in the Paynesville area.
From that initial program, Families First has grown in Paynesville, expanding from a group of concerned parents to include the entire community. Committee members visited with area government boards, organizations, and clubs explaining what they can do to help area children.
Steve Brisendine, Families First committee member, said the group had met several times since their start in the spring of 1995. The committee had talked about many solutions but everything seemed to return to the 40 developmental assets developed by the Search Institute. The assets deal with social competencies, positive values, educational commitment provided by families, schools, churches, community organizations.
ăIt was decided, as role models, we (the steering committee) needed to develop the assets within ourselves before we could expect to pass them on to our children,ä Brisendine said. Steering committee members are: Brisendine, Rick Hoyme, Nancy Naujokas, Jane Frieler, Bob Cushman and Lowell Haagenson.
To get a better feel of where the Paynesville students ranked in developmental assets, the middle school and high school students took part in a Search Institute survey. The survey, ăProfiles of Student Life - Attitudes and Behaviors,ä showed Paynesville students were on or near the national average, with our students averaging 16 or 17 of the 40 developmental assets.
The report provided only a viewpoint of the students at one point in time. It cannot provide an explanation of the cause of problems or the effectiveness of various efforts being made to correct the problems, the report said.
The report urged the community to ask what evidence there is in Paynesville for positive youth development. The report also asked what factors are in the community which provide youth with some protection against problems. Can the factors be strengthened? The report was considered a valuable tool by Families First as it showed where the Paynesville students are and what areas the community needs to focus on as the students progress through the grades.
Carl Holmstrom, St. Louis Parkâs organizer of Childrenâs First, spoke to about 100 parents and interested students at the Paynesville Elementary School last spring. He presented those in attendance with options and examples on how people can better relate with children in the community by using the developmental assets.
ăIt isnât up to the committee to see that the program succeeds,ä Brisendine said. ăIt is up to the community. There are no quick fixes. We need to take responsibility for our actions. We have to build up positive assets, not tear down the children. It always seems to come back to the parents and children.ä
Has the community changed in the year and a half since the movement started? Brisendine and Cushman feel it has.
A retired Paynesville school counselor, Cushman, said someone told him they used to yell at students bicycling on the highway to get off the road. After hearing more about Families First, the individual now stops his car and takes a softer approach to youth, explaining his fear they could get hurt by riding their bikes on the highway. He added another family is eating their evening meal together at the table and discussing the dayâs events instead of watching television.
Cushman leads peer helper seminars at the high school and explains to students that violence is an unhealthy response to anger. Violence is a learned behavior with one incident leading to another. Violence can be verbal, sexual, emotional or physical.
Characteristics of violence are anger, fear, racism, hopelessness, confusion, helplessness, frustration, myths, labels, and stereotypes. ăWe must stop the cycle from starting,ä Cushman added.
Brisendine and Cushman both stressed the need for more interaction among people: parents, senior citizens and children of all ages. It is going to take people doing the little things like acknowledging children by name and showing an interest in them that will bring the children, who are borderline delinquents, back off the fence and making them productive community members. Cushman emphasized three phases are important in working with children: spend time with them, pay attention, and do your best.
ăWith everybody doing a little bit here and there, working to instill some of the developmental assets in students, the results will be more effective. There are no quick fixes, it will take time before results are noticeable,ä Brisendine said. ăThe solution isnât up to the steering committee, but individuals and parents working with neighborhood children and with their own children.ä
Brisendine said there is nothing difficult about Families First, people just need to use common sense. Some common sense suggestions he offered were: đHe urged that people talk to children they meet on the street; đOccasionally eat lunch in the cafeteria with youth. đ Take time to ask children at least one personal question every time you have a meeting. đ Interact with youth so they learn to interact with adults. đBe consistent in rules enforcement. đ Always ask teens who they will be with when they go to parties or other activities. đ Car pool with other families so youth can participate in community activities.
Cushman said the school is looking at ways the staff can show students they care. Teachers and staff members are being encouraged to attend more school activities; adopt-a-student in subtle ways by helping them with projects, talking to them about little things, attending their activities or just being there for them without their classmates calling them teacherâs pet; deal with issues not personalities; and talk to students in the hallway more often.
Cushman cited two activities that took place this year as a result of the Families First movement. The Paynesville Area Hospital hosted the Family Fitness program this summer. Only a small group took part, but they were encouraged more would participate next summer. Last spring, several residents at 700 Stearns helped remodel band uniforms for the school marching band which provided interaction between age groups.
There arenât any bad kids
Jay Keift, Kandiyohi County probation officer, said there arenât any bad children in this world, just children that have made bad choices. ăWe can come up with program after program to help the children, but the solution needs to come from the community and home,ä he added. ăThe system keeps reacting to younger children all the time. We challenge communities to provide the right things: activities for the kids. We need to give children structured activities, standards they can follow, and help children make the right decisions.ä
Do children and parents talk? Is somebody instilling values in your children? What is the home, school, community doing as a whole or not doing to help children reach their potential, Keift asked. He stressed parents and teachers canât be wishy washy; they need to follow through with the consequences. Parents need to know what values they want their children to have, how to relate to their child, and to do it consistently with their love and care.
Keift is hearing from juveniles he works with that schools donât care. Schools need to focus on simple solutions. Teachers and staff need to greet children in the hall by name when they meet students. When a child comes to school, greet them with a warm welcome at their classroom door. Teachers need to spend more time each day in their classrooms before and after school to interact with children instead of being pulled away by staff meetings.
ăEverybody is responsible for the success of a child,ä Keift added. ăWe need to look at ourselves as well as others. Nobody can be productive if we are busy pointing fingers at others. Building assets is a lifelong job, starting when the child is an infant.ä
The probation program Keift works with is a direct link to the development assets established by the Search Institute, which Families First uses in Paynesville. He believes in... đNot pointing fingers at a system or child. đParents need to be accountable for raising their children. đChildren need to be held responsible for their behavior and actions.
Keift gets disgusted when people look to the courts and schools to handle family problems. They need to look at themselves, then talk about solutions with their child. ăThe legal system can get tougher but we have learned the solution lies in the community,ä he added
Historically, successful cultures have community involvement, where there is unconditional love, caring, and everybody is responsible.
Keift suggested parents look at their children as a resource, not a liability. ăChildren are our future and how we treat them seals their fate. Giving of oneself produces the most impact,ä he added. ăSchools donât need to create more programs, adults just need to take time to be more active in their childrenâs lives.ä There are no quick fixes - look to the developmental assets, instill two or three in each child per year and in 10 years you will have a changed community, Keift stressed.
Liaison officer in school
The liaison program is being utilized by the Stearns County Sheriffâs Department to promote communication between the law enforcement and students. Stearns County has taken the officer out of the squad car and put him or her into the classroom.
Officer Dan Winkles is assigned to the Paynesville and Holdingford School Districts for three years. He has completed one year in the schools and is starting his second year. ăThe first year, students were a little apprehensive about my presence in school,ä Winkles said. ăThey are feeling more comfortable around me this year. We donât want students to be afraid of law enforcement personnel.ä
Winkles tries to be at school before classes start each morning and stays until almost all the students have cleared out of the building in the afternoon. He has also attended several football games and other activities at school.
ăSome of the students talk to me about the problems they face at home and school. I donât want students to be a snitch, but to know Iâm there if they want to talk,ä he added. Winkles has met with students in the classroom. He talks to them about drugs, drinking and driving, and the legal consequences of what happens if they are caught. Other topics have also dealt with weapons and the possession of tobacco.
Another program to make law enforcement more approachable and visible to the public is putting officers on bicycles. Winkles said he and other officers have bicycle racks on their squad cars. When they patrol a small town, they will sometimes park their cars and ride around town on their bicycles. ăI ride around town talking with business people and children I meet on the street. Biking provides us with more one-on-one contact with people,ä he said. Winkles also hands out Viking football cards to children he meets on the street or at football games he attends.
Several communities which are concerned about the rising crime rates have started a Neighborhood Crime Watch. Winkles explained they are easy to start. All it takes to start a Neighborhood Crime Watch, is cooperation from 50 percent of the area residents. An officer comes out to a neighborhood meeting and helps get them organized. ăWe canât solve the problems without the assistance of the public,ä Winkles said. ăThe officer explains how to mark possessions for easy identification; how to be more vigilant in noticing different neighbohood activites; what to watch for in order to give good descriptions of vehicles or individuals in the event of a crime.ä
A new program starting in Stearns County is ăReal Justice.ä It deals with group conferencing, bringing the suspect and victim together with support people to talk about what happened and why.
ăIt offers the victim the opportunity of meeting his violator face-to-face. The suspect learns how his actions affected the business owner, homeowner or other individuals,ä Winkles said. ăThe process takes a lot of time. Part of the program is to give the crime back to the community. Through discussions, the community and suspect come up with solutions on how the suspect faces responsibility for his actions.ä Some of the solutions include paying restitution, a letter of apology to the victim, or community service.
Winkles said his belief as a parent and law enforcement officer is to keep children active, be it in school or community activities. The activities could include: scouting programs or doing volunteer work at the local hospital, nursing home or public library. He strongly urged parental involvement. Parents need to make their presence felt at activities in which their children participate: sporting events, plays, or music programs.
Parents also need to hold their children responsible for their actions, he said, be it something they did in the neighborhood, at home or at school.
Brisendine added, we need to hear more positive things about the kids in the Paynesville area and not always the negative. Many Paynesville area students are doing positive things. Some of their activities include:
đThis year four Boy Scouts have achieved Eagle Scout rank and four more Scouts are winding up the paper work on their Eagle projects.
đ The Girl Scouts hosted the open house in the childrenâs section of the public library.
đ Middle school students did more than 25 community service projects this fall which included raking many area yards.
đAfter the sleet and snow recently, kids were out helping shovel sidewalks and driveways for their neighbors.
đMore than 373 children took part in summer recreation activities this year.
đSeveral students were selected to travel to Washington, D.C. for leadership programs.
đMany area students have worked as peer tutors/helpers in the high school and middle school.
đHigh school athletes serve as role models in the fifth grade DARE program.
đArea youth maintain the Crow River Nature Park in Paynesville.
đMore than 180 students participate in the middle and high school music programs.
Anyone wishing to learn more about Families First and what they can do individually or as a group to help Paynesville area children is welcome to attend a meeting. The next meeting is on Monday, Dec. 2, at 7:30 p.m. in room 101 at the high school, or by calling Brisendine at the community education office, 320-243-7570.
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