By Julie E. Greene, Herald Mail Media
Bester Elementary School students in Hagerstown are receiving free acute health care services from the Community Free Clinic, while social services is funding a program to help families in that school district address unemployment and the need for food.
Both programs are the result of the Bester Community of Hope, a San Mar Children’s Home initiative whose goals include improving the well-being of students there, as well as improving the community overall.
The Bester Community of Hope is an umbrella organization for neighborhood support that works with existing organizations to try to “fill gaps” and create better and positive outcomes for the community, group Director Keith Fanjoy said.
Gov. Larry Hogan will be visiting Bester Elementary on Thursday at the invitation of the Bester Community of Hope, he said.
After learning the governor was going to visit Rose Hill Cemetery across the street from the school, initiative officials invited the governor to meet with students at the school in the city’s South End.
The Bester community was chosen for the initiative based on its overlapping social needs, neighborhood momentum that saw a new school open in August 2014 and other strengths, Fanjoy said.
Mike Piercy, director of the Washington County Department of Social Services, said social services officials are excited about the San Mar initiative.
“It’s putting children and families first, which is what we want. And it’s addressing prevention in the community,” Piercy said.
The initiative’s work is strengthening families, the home environment and home communities so “problems don’t become disasters” and that is “a win-win for everybody,” he said.
The local social services department recently provided $303,455.80 in federal funds to the initiative, spread over two fiscal years, to fund the STEPS program, which stands for Strengthening Ties and Empowering Parents, Fanjoy said.
STEPS get referrals from Bester Elementary, the social services department and houses of faith within the school district to meet and work with families to determine what support services they need, said Jen Younker, program director and a licensed clinical social worker.
Since that program began in late August, it has averaged working with six families a week, she said. Among the assistance families might need are help with employment; access to a food bank including transportation; and connecting families with youth program opportunities such as scouting groups, she said.
The Hope initiative has gotten key support from Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based national foundation aiming to reduce the need to put children in foster care, and the local Alice Virginia and David W. Fletcher Foundation.
The Fletcher Foundation helped the initiative get started with $222,000 in its first year, and has renewed its financial support with $273,000 for 16 months from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, 2017, Fanjoy said.
An agreement between San Mar, the school system, the Community Free Clinic and Meritus, which runs the school system’s school health program, has resulted in a new program that allows clinic officials to deliver “free acute care services” for all Bester students and to do that at the school, Fanjoy said.
The Hope initiative also collaborated with the YMCA to provide extra manpower for its summer program at Bester. Starting Oct. 24, the Y’s after-school program at Bester will be supplemented with free services through other organizations that are for all of the school’s students, Fanjoy said.
Those services for the Bester Out of School Time, or BOOST program, include having the Washington County Community Mediation Center start a weekly kids council and having Fresh Academicz, a local breakdancing and hip-hop group, provide a weekly class, Fanjoy said.
Community of Hope also is working with the Hagerstown Area Religious Council and 16 houses of faith in the school district. One goal is to improve communication among the houses of worship so that as they continue to help the community they aren’t duplicating their efforts, he said.
The Community of Hope focuses on building connections and relationships so more can be done as a collective group, Fanjoy said.
On Monday, Hope personnel were going door-to-door, surveying residents about their perceptions of the quality of life and listening to what the Hope initiative could do to make a positive impact, Program Manager Kerry Fair said.
Hope personnel also went door-to-door on Sunday in the area of Locust and Frederick streets, with representatives from Congregation B’nai Abraham and the Washington County chapter of the NAACP to help local residents complete voter registration and make sure they knew their polling place, officials said.
Photograph by Joe Crocetta