Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 15, Number 4
Summer 1993


Families taking charge

by Stacey Pastor

Economically speaking, times are tough all over. But for some, they are so tough that it is impossible to make ends meet. Families Taking Charge, a series of programs designed by two Virginia Tech professors to assist families experiencing financial stress, seeks to help people make ends meet as well as help them overcome the emotional stress that results from financial hardship.

The program, which began just over a year ago, is a Virginia Cooperative Extension effort between Virginia's two land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The curriculum for the program was developed by Irene Leech, Virginia Tech Extension specialist and professor of housing, interior design, and resource management, and her College of Human Resources faculty colleague, Mike Sporakowski.

Many different programs are included in the overall Families Taking Charge effort. One focuses on women's individual financial needs. Another helps young people prevent future financial problems.

Agents and volunteers from each Extension unit in the state contribute their own ideas and resources to the program. For instance, volunteers from some units counsel workers who are facing layoffs. The Pittsylvania County unit created and aired a series of cable television shows for unemployed workers. In Scott County, Extension workers created the "Recipes to Reality" workshop, which teaches families how to start and operate a home-based business in woodworking, quilting, baking, or almost anything. At least two units have set up local chapters of the national SHARE food-buying program, exchanging reduced price food for hours of volunteer service.

Last October, Arlington County's bilingual-outreach effort, which helps immigrant families adjust to life in America, received a $100,000 Ford Foundation grant as one of 10 winners of the 1992 innovations in state and local government awards. The program has helped to stabilize immigrant neighborhoods and to preserve affordable housing by fostering positive relations between immigrant residents and their landlords and neighbors.

Some programs emphasize the importance of good nutrition on any budget. And they attempt to reach the people who most strongly influence decisions to buy food, clothing, and other items. For instance, the Head Start Kids food and nutrition education program targets 4- and 5-year-olds because they can exert tremendous influence on food purchases, especially breakfast cereals.

Other programs target parents. "If you don't have healthy parents, you won't have healthy babies," says Patty Collier, Extension agent and home economist for the Scott County Extension Office.

The Families Taking Charge program uses a series of 15 educational publications, or "fact sheets," to teach family members how to cope with stress and better communicate with each other. These publications also educate them in such areas as budgeting and insurance.

The statewide training program for volunteers teaches them to work one-on-one with families. This program gives volunteers information on financial planning, counseling skills, and knowledge of the community resources available to them.

In the case of layoffs, volunteer educators, some of whom have participated in the program themselves, emphasize getting control of the feelings of stress that naturally result. "You are not to blame for what has happened. Many people are in your situation, and, hard as it is, they learn to overcome their difficulties," they advise. They recommend recognizing feelings of anxiety, anger, and depression as natural, temporary emotions that are more manageable when talked about with understanding people.

Spending less and getting the most for your money is one of the harder things to learn. Food can be difficult to buy with a limited income, they warn. Plan meals at least a week in advance, and shop only from a list based on planned menus. Don't go shopping when you're tired or hungry; everything looks good. Remember to maintain good health habits throughout, as good nutrition can prevent illness and unnecessary medical expenses.

The goal of the Families Taking Charge program is to empower people by giving them control over their own lives. The program gives families important information about where to go for help and support and other resources that are available to them.

Stacey Pastor '93 was a spring intern at the Virginia Tech magazine.

Virginia Tech Magazine, Volume 15, Number 4, Summer 1993