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Free To Grow

Family help program designed to deter crime

By C. Ron Allen
Staff Writer

May 19, 2001

Delray Beach + Declaring that "Just say no" to drugs is not enough, a local social service agency has announced plans to work with parents in the southwest section of the city to help their children stay away from crime and drugs.

Organizers for Head Start plan to hold workshops and seminars to show residents how to manage their money, to prevent domestic violence and how to resolve conflict.

"We find in many families where there is some sort of substance abuse, there is domestic violence," said Carmen Nicholas, director of Palm Beach County's Head Start & Children's Services division. "Exactly which comes first, we don't know. But I think drug use does contribute to domestic violence."

If the program is successful, coalition officials said the initiative, named Free to Grow, will allow the children -- generally from birth to about age 5 -- to grow in an environment that's free from substance abuse and the problems that are associated with drugs.

They also said by targeting the adults, they can in turn teach children at an early age the dangers of drugs.

"The fact that we're sending the message later when the kids are in middle or elementary school is ... not acceptable," Nicholas said. "There is nothing, so far, that's targeting those families with newborns until preschool age, which is one of the reasons why we're doing this."

The program will be financed through four-year grants, totaling about $450,000. The Head Start program has a solid track record in getting federal grants and matching local money, Nicholas said. Plans are to hire an administrator and six part-time staffers from the community to run the program.

Early reactions from city residents and business operators are mixed.

"If it works, it can only do good. So, I can't knock that," said William Dames, operator of a coin laundry on West Atlantic Avenue.

However, Adrian Fisher, a lifelong Delray Beach resident, has reservations.

"As long as I have lived in this city, I have been hearing of different programs they have to help us get rid of the drugs in the black community, and I still haven't seen that happen yet," said Fisher, 47, who works as for a packaging service. "Not to say it can't happen, but I will believe it once I see some changes."

The program will target about 300 families of Head Start children in the area cordoned by West Atlantic Avenue, Linton and Swinton boulevards and Interstate 95.

Head Start officials have created an advisory board with representatives from civic organizations, local schools, churches and businesses in the community.

Besides day care, Head Start makes sure children get three meals a day, medical and dental care as well as family support services.

While the Free to Grow program is new in Palm Beach County, there are pilot projects scattered in California, Colorado, Kentucky, New York and Puerto Rico.

Free to Grow will become fully operational in June 2002. Until then, there's a lot of work to do.

"We're going to go door to door and have them tell us what are those things that they would like to see changed and together work on strategies on changing them," Nicholas said this week.

Experts agree there have been several other well-intentioned programs that turned out to be failures since the war on drugs began. The success of this is program, Nicholas said, will largely depend on the residents.

"I don't know about guarantee," she said. "What I do know is, the strategies will be identified by the community, so hopefully that should increase the chances of success. It's their program, it's what they want to do. It's up to them. We will support them and provide them with whatever resources they need to make it happen."

C. Ron Allen can be reached at crallen@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6611.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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