As Children’s Trust works with local partners across South Carolina to support children and families, Neil White, who tells the stories of the organization, visits one of the sites to watch a session of the evidence-based program known as SFP.

Darlington SFP-Cafeteria

HARTSVILLE – Tracy Redfearn looks across the tables in the West Hartsville Elementary School cafeteria and sees the quintessential setting for the Strengthening Families Program.

Redfearn, a psychologist and the executive director of the Child and Family Resource Center, serves as the site coordinator for the program being implemented by Darlington County First Steps. She believes the program’s lessons mesh ideally within the school’s walls and the community’s broader social fabric.

DarlingtonSFP - Tracy Redfearn

Tracy Redfearn receives great joy from helping children and families as the site coordinator for SFP in Darlington County.

“Strengthening Families (Program) is a bridge,” Redfearn said. “It’s a bridge between families, it’s a bridge between the schools, and it’s a bridge between the community. Parents, I feel like, have been looking for something to help everybody come together when they feel hopeless. Now there’s a bridge. This is how we get here, we can do it. And the school is a perfect place.”

Eleven families graduated from the 14-week cycle in the spring, and they’ll be followed by 10 more in the fall. SFP is an evidence-based program that works closely with families with children ages 6 to 11 to develop positive discipline practices, stay resilient in tough times, reduce conflict, improve parenting skills, and assist children with social skills, relationships, and school performance. All of these factors play an important role in keeping families strong while protecting against potential child abuse or neglect.

Children’s Trust supports SFP in collaboration with local partners in 24 counties across the state. The organization provides training, collects data and monitors the program to ensure it reaches the maximum potential for children and families. The Duke Endowment and the S.C. Department of Social Services serve as the funding partners in this effort.

Finding Better Ways to Communicate

Raegan DeBruhl is participating in the program this fall with her sons Hardy, 14, and Pressly, 6. She has gained true insight from a parent’s perspective when it comes to daily interaction.

“The biggest thing that we’ve talked about is communicating effectively, and I think sometimes parents don’t always understand their kids,” said DeBruhl, a teacher at Hartsville Middle School.

DarlingtonSFP - Raegan DeBruhl

Raegan DeBruhl listens to the discussion in the group of parents.

“We’re asking questions, you know, why aren’t they listening? Why aren’t they doing this and that? And sometimes they just don’t understand. So I’ve learned to really keep things short, simple, more direct, and it’s just made a difference in them listening and us getting things done.”

Julie Mahn, principal at West Hartsville, sees the benefits of the communication skills being taught in the program reflected in her school’s hallways among participating students.

“They’re able to communicate now, and they understand the importance of it,” Mahn said. “All families have conflict, but I feel like our families are given the tools now to handle conflict in a healthy way. The children are better listeners from the weekly sessions and able to process what’s going on instead of just being aggressive about it. They’re able to handle situations that come up because they’re given so many problem-solving strategies in their (SFP) classes. I see them using those day-to-day in the schools.”

Reaching Out to the Community

Both Redfearn and Mahn point to the community buy-in for the success of SFP. Darlington County school board members have visited during the weekly evening sessions – which always include a family meal at the start, separate classes for parents and children, and a combined class to finish – and gained a close-up look at how they work. Businesses leaders also have expressed their backing for what they view as a positive experience for families.

DarlingtonSFP - Julie Mahn

West Hartsville principal Julie Mahn sees the value of SFP utilizing her school as a site.

Redfearn got a call several weeks ago from a local primary care physician who wanted to know how to get families enrolled in future cycles of the program. She also has heard from a pediatric nurse as well as a nurse practitioner in a different practice wanting to know more details about how the program works for families.

Mahn is hearing the positive buzz as well.

“It’s definitely out in the community,” Mahn said. “I have people that I’ll see in the grocery store or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I heard about the Strengthening Families Program, tell me a little about it.’ We have lots of volunteers from the community who just want to come in and help with the program.”

The parents enrolled in the program are doing their part to spread the word. As they ate dinner Dec. 4 in the 13th week of the sessions – one week before a celebratory graduation ceremony – they spoke glowingly about the ways their families have gotten stronger.

Making Connections with Family, Friends

DarlingtonSFP - Tucker raises hand

Tucker answers a question in the group discussion for kids ages 6 to 8.

Courtney McElveen, a certified nursing assistant, appreciates how communications with her son, 8-year-old Tucker, have improved. She proudly notes there’s less yelling between the two of them, and they’ve committed to eating nightly dinners at the table instead of sitting in the living room with the television on while staring at their cell phones. The change came at Tucker’s suggestion.

She also has made new friendships that will last when the SFP sessions end. Those relationships have already started with the exchange of phone numbers.

“The women here have definitely bonded,” McElveen said. “There have been several times when one of us is going through something, and the others contribute by saying, ‘I’ve been through that. Let’s talk it through.’”

Redfearn calls it “a safe place to come, a small group that’s therapeutic” for families, who also are getting good suggestions from the trained group leaders administering the weekly lessons.

“If the old way’s not working, it’s OK to ask for help,” Redfearn said. “And I think that’s what our families are seeing.”

On this particular evening, the lessons were focused on controlling anger and appropriate responses and actions when mad. Class discussions, which included separate classes for the children ages 6-to-8 and 9-to-11, as well as those for older and younger siblings, provided practical strategies for what to do when upsetting situations arose.

DarlingtonSFP - Tywanna Brunson

Tywanna Brunson engages in welcoming conversation at the start of the weekly SFP session.

Each week one family ends the evening with a presentation about they hope to take away from the program. Many of them have a good idea of what SFP has meant in their lives.

Tywanna Brunson, a mom who oversees three ministries, has developed a better relationship with her 11-year-old daughter Zion, who has felt comfortable sharing things that might otherwise have gone unsaid. SFP has led to them spending more quality time together.

“There are things that my daughter has been going through that I haven’t been seeing,” Brunson said. “She’s been telling them what she’s been going through pertaining to me, and it’s eye-opening. We are getting those things in line in order to strengthen our family because it’s just me and her. It’s very important to let her know that I do appreciate her, and I love her.”