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Four Coordinators Trying To Help One Family at a Time

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Louisville, Ky.

When Jaye Sparber came to work at Breckenridge Elementary School here, she visited every classroom and drew a big heart on the blackboard.

Inside, she sketched a family. "My job," she told students, "is to help the people inside the heart."

Ms. Sparber is the coordinator of the school's family-resource center. When she walks the halls, children run to her for bear hugs and words of encouragement.

Her center, tucked in a tiny office, is cluttered with a couch, an array of multi-ethnic dolls, parents' magazines, children's books, and student art. From it, Ms. Sparber offers parents and students a surprising array of services, from informal chats with parents to help with emergencies.

Late one afternoon she received a frantic call from a child who had been left home all day in charge of a younger sibling. "You did the right thing to call me," said Ms. Sparber, soothing the child and grilling her mother, who returned home during the conversation and picked up the phone.

"What I've learned," Ms. Sparber said, "is that you don't try to change the world--you just try to help one family."

Bette Hughes, the coordinator of a youth-services center in its first year at Louisville's Stuart Middle School, helped boost attendance rates in the early weeks of school by arranging for a doctor to provide much-needed immunizations. She also helped set up a program to station therapists at the school and has launched parenting classes.

She is proud of such feats as helping a mother who was a recovering alcoholic find food and housing and enroll in a job-placement program that landed her a good job.

But Ms. Hughes is hard-nosed about setting limits with families who do not take steps to help themselves. "I'm not going to 'enable' them," she said.

As a veteran teacher who frequently made home visits and as a foster parent, Ms. Hughes knows the community well. But because the area has many homeless families, she has had to master the intricacies of housing aid, something for which she had no training.

"My biggest challenge is having enough time for families," said Ms. Hughes, who works 10 to 12 hours a day and carries a pager. "If a family is evicted, I want them to be able to contact me."

In the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Cordis Smith, a former coal miner, has supplemented the $29,000 grant he gets for a center by raising $500,000 each year in in-kind donations.

He runs a center that serves a combined elementary and high school in Knott County. He has helped launch a preschool program, landed a grant for an unusual job-placement program for high schoolers, and set up programs to help families get medicines and parents earn high-school-equivalency diplomas.

Many of the donations have been channeled through a tax-free, nonprofit organization that owns the school building and helps it raise money, and Mr. Smith has set up partnerships with foundations and schools as far afield as New Jersey. He spends a lot of time, though, helping families with food and shelter.

"If parents can't pay their electric bills or don't have running water," he said, "they're not interested in anything else."

Betty Graham, the coordinator of a center serving two elementary schools and a middle school in Nelson County, says her career as a teacher, then a stockbroker, then a child advocate has served her well.

From her office in a portable building across from Foster Heights Elementary School, she fields a steady stream of calls and visits from parents seeking anything from help with family problems to interpreting a report card.

Venturing out after dusk one evening on winding, icy roads, she visited one family to get the lowdown on an incident in which a youth was let off a school bus after arguing with the driver. At another home, she tried to arrange help for a woman whose son had been sick for several weeks.

Ms. Graham has faced grim tasks. She has pulled all-nighters with distressed parents, and she has helped arrange the funeral of a young child. But many families find ways to return the favor.

Some donate clothes and stuffed animals to the center, and it is not unusual to find a bag of tomatoes or potatoes on the steps.

"It's like Christmas every day," she said.

--Deborah L. Cohen

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