A Legacy of Kindness

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

2017 is a year of celebration for Family Service of Rhode Island (FSRI), and with good reason: for the past 125 years they’ve been making life better for children and parents coping with illness, poverty, trauma and other challenging circumstances, on the East Side and beyond. They have done so by forging successful partnerships and affiliations, and developing innovative programs with various service providers throughout the state. It all began in 1892 with a partnership between Brown University and FSRI and a simple mission: to reduce pauperism, relieve poverty and to help the poor become self-supporting. 

If you are not familiar with FSRI, you have likely heard of the names of some of the forward-thinking individuals (several with streets named after them here on the East Side) who have been associated with the organization over the years: Chace, Goddard, Metcalf, Taber, Tillinghast and others. The nonprofit’s first president was E. Benjamin Andrews, a defender of free speech, academic freedom and president of Brown from 1889 to 1898.

FSRI, originally named “Providence Society for Organizing Charity,” was founded at the beginning of this country’s Progressive Era, in the same year that the Pledge of Allegiance was first recited in schools and our first federal immigration station, Ellis Island, opened its doors – all of which seems particularly relevant today given the persistent need for continued social activism and services (and the ever-present threat of loss of the same). This is what FSRI has been doing, unabated, for more than a century. Though their mission has evolved over the years, they have held course through turbulent times while expanding their services and community outreach beyond the scope of their early programs to address poverty. Some of those nascent and practical projects included what was called the “potato patch,” which offered men in need land and seeds for vegetable gardens. And to help women, the Society also created a laundry to provide training and employment for the ladies. The Rhode Island Penny Provident Society advocated saving dollars, and in the early 20th century FSRI spearheaded the Rhode Island Council of Community Services and additionally, The Community Fund, which thereafter became the United Way.

FSRI’s reach has spanned across three centuries and generations have benefited from their past and present-day mission, which, not unlike their initial plan, aims to improve the health and wellbeing of Rhode Island communities. The nonprofit’s longevity speaks not only to the enduring necessity for such services, but also to an ethos of compassion, care, cooperation and commitment. Illness, poverty and trauma, lamentably, persist throughout Rhode Island, and FSRI’s thirty-nine various services, which are delivered in and out of the home have helped many in need. In home, FSRI provides help such as case management to assist with housing, budgeting, job search and dealing with school systems. Early intervention is furnished for children three and under who are late in reaching ordinary developmental milestones; and, coaching is offered to guide parents unable to meet the emotional or physical care of a child, or to help set limits and create routines. Because some families have a history of generational abuse and neglect, one of FSRI’s goals is to work closely with them, teaching and coaching both parents and children, in order to break that cycle.

Margaret Holland McDuff, CEO of FSRI, has been with the agency for twenty-seven years. She began her tenure in 1990 as a social worker, and as such, has witnessed firsthand the plethora of challenges many families face, especially those who are struggling to make ends meet or have children with special needs; a wide range of services are required in order to address such challenges. She says, “As a social worker, you learn quickly that there are no simple solutions. No magic cures for illness, poverty or trauma. As the head of an agency, you rapidly recognize that no one organization can address all the problems, or help all of the people who need help. You learn that to be truly effective and to make a real impact, we must all work together. We must have partners.”

Thus, over the years, FSRI has partnered with many nonprofits, city and town departments, state agencies, educational institutions (like Brown), and private or frontline groups (such as police officers and teachers) that interact directly with families in crisis. For instance, they work in schools to determine the appropriate kind of support for children who have been identified with behavioral, mental health or family issues. Through collaborative efforts, they have also developed the Walking School Bus program, aimed at assuring kids safely arrive to school and combatting chronic absenteeism, which has volunteers walking children to school. The Partners in Service program (PINS) supports families with at-risk children by working with faith based communities and local businesses. To cast a wider net of advocacy and encouragement, they also partner with community organizations such as Children’s Friend, Tides Family Service and the Center for South East Asians, all of which cultivate community relationships while broadcasting the kind of help that’s available through the nonprofit. McDuff says, “Our partnerships are designed to meet people where they are, to interact with them in their homes and in the communities where they live, and to provide help that strengthens families and promotes healthier communities.”

These collaborations, as well as many others, including the AIDS Project Rhode Island program, a division of FSRI that builds awareness through education and training, facilitates HIV testing and provides services to those living with HIV/AIDS, have made an imprint throughout the state. As a result of such partnerships, McDuff sees big and small successes every day. She tells the story of a home break-in by gun-wielding, masked men that deeply affected an eight-year-old girl. Through a trauma-based therapy program the girl was successfully treated for PTSD. McDuff says about the girl, that “she is no longer afraid to go outside and play with her brother and that they know how to keep each other safe.”

For all the goodness FSRI bestows upon our communities, there is always more to do. Obstacles lie ahead. Providence was named a sanctuary city for immigrants by Mayor Jorge Elorza, which could result in a rising need for services under a presidential administration inclined to defund essential social services. Of this, McDuff assures that FSRI is paying close attention to the happenings in Washington – possible shifts in funding and regulations – though FSRI cannot presently know how their programs may be impacted. They are expecting that some changes will cause difficulties, while others potentially may open up opportunities. McDuff states, “Our philosophy is to treat everyone, regardless of circumstance, with compassion and respect and to offer help where we can… we have weathered all kinds of changes: societal, technological and political. Our agency is designed to be flexible and responsive and to meet new challenges as they arise. There will always be a need for the work we do and we are committed to helping as many people as we can.”

One noticeable benefit of the current political climate, McDuff states, is that it has helped to raise awareness, and she hopes the same will translate into more support – whether it is through volunteerism or financial contributions. The organization plans to have a number of events and activities throughout the year in which people will have the opportunity to participate and support their efforts. The events, as well as ways to donate and help out are listed on FSRI’s website, and good neighbors can also get involved with FSRI’s programs through ServeRI.

There is an air of optimism in McDuff’s words. Such hopefulness is reflected in FSRI’s celebratory 125 Acts of Kindness campaign, which was partly conceived as a response to a divisive election year and the increasingly brutish rhetoric of public debate. The campaign will be a yearlong celebration of acts of kindness in which the nonprofit will encourage and showcase by way of social media and public meetings the good deeds of staff, clients, partners and everyone in the community – proving every day that, as Dickens said, “no one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” To get the word out, they plan to hold at least one event in every city because, as McDuff says, “We’re hoping that with a little effort this campaign will be contagious and that the simple act of doing something nice for someone else will catch on.” Seems it’s already begun: during one of this winter’s snowstorms, an FSRI employee cleaned the snow off of all the cars in their parking lot.

After all these years, the partnership between two longstanding upholders of the community abides. In February, Brown’s current president and founder of its interdisciplinary research center known as the Center for Health and Wellbeing, Christina Paxson, kicked off FSRI’s 125th anniversary by hosting a reception celebrating what she called a “beloved and vital organization.” And she thanked them for their major role in “making people whole over the last 125 years.”

In April, both organizations will again come together to recognize Brown’s indelible commitment to FSRI, as well as Paxson’s important research that investigates how health and economics impact children. Paxson and Brown University will be presented with FSRI’s Family Service Brighter Futures Award. Surely, more bright futures lie ahead. FamilyServiceRI.org.


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