Starfish Family Services may not be a household name or the “go-to” agency in Jewish Detroit, but its connections run deep in the community and its mission resonates: to nurture, connect and strengthen families and to seek positive and lasting change in the lives of children by supporting their steps toward success in school.
Celebrating 50 years of service to the community, Starfish traces its beginnings to 1963 as Northwestern Child Guidance Clinic of Wayne County. Through the years, Starfish has grown from a foster care and adoption agency to a family-centered service agency, focused on early childhood development.
With its grassroots community approach, Starfish has gained the esteem and support of major foundations in the region, including the Max M.and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation and The Jewish Fund. Commenting on the decision to award Starfish a $125,000 grant in 2012 to reach young mothers through an innovative program called Baby Power, Margo Pernick, Executive Director of The Jewish Fund, observed,“Consistently, Starfish Family Services has stood out among the hundreds of non-profit agencies in metropolitan Detroit, as one that serves a highly at-risk population of families in a geographic area that is often overlooked. Starfish has high expectations of itself, its staff, performance and outcomes, and has prioritized its services to address those needs that are both critical and where positive change is attainable and measurable.”
“Teaching families to swim, one family at a time.” In the words of Ouida Cash, Starfish founder and its leader (of blessed memory), “To save children, seek answers upstream, rather than pulling bodies out of a fast-moving river.”
Planting seeds for success
Headquartered in a repurposed elementary school building on Hiveley Street in the heart of Inkster, Starfish stands as a beacon in the neighborhood, a true community center. Here new visitors and old friends alike are warmly greeted at the door . . . to Head Start classes, after-school programs, parenting workshops, pre-natal support, GED training, book groups, therapy groups, family counseling, summer camp, community gardening – a myriad of activities year round.
“The house that Ouida built”
With its big and bright, kid-friendly spaces, the Hiveley Center is just one of 17 sites where Starfish provides services every school day to more than 1,100 children from low income families in Wayne County. In a walk through the Center, Starfish Chief Executive Officer, Ann B. Kalass, explains that the building itself is a “work in progress and a labor of love.” Ann joined Starfish in 2007, and under her direction, along with the leadership of the Board, Starfish has dramatically grown into a $20 million private, nonprofit agency with more than 350 employees. On staff are more than 100 master level educators, social workers and healthcare professionals serving outpatient offices in Westland, Livonia and Inkster and launching new services for children ages 0 to 5 throughout Wayne County.
It’s three in the afternoon: we observe the mix of “Starfish Kids” as 17 preschoolers wind down their day with a snack in the Yellow Room. “Everything is family-style,” Ann points out, “so the kids are learning to share and pass and clean up after themselves when they’re done.”
“Hello, big brother”
We stop to meet Ms. Joselyn, a Starfish bus aid and mother of three boys. Joselyn’s older son has come in with her to pick up his twin brothers. “Here’s another one of our Starfish kids,” Ann tells us. “I think he likes this part of his day – when he can come in, take charge, help his mother get his younger brothers from the classroom. Here he sees people like me who greet him and make him feel welcome and needed. Making the connections here is just a first step, what our children need is more support – a continuum of services and enrichment programs that follow their families through preschool and beyond.”
“It’s not enough to put out the fires,” says newly elected Starfish Chair, Ron Sollish. An attorney at Maddin Hauser and long-time community leader, Ron succeeded Jonathan Citrin, who recruited him to the Board in 2011. “A lot of public dollars are spent remediating versus prevention,” commented Ron. “At Starfish, we’re building this incredibly intense, loving and nurturing environment to give children and families the tools and support they need to break the cycle of poverty. Our goal is to help strengthen the community landscape here in Inkster, so that all Inkster children start school ready to succeed.”
About 15 years ago, Starfish re-engineered its agency model, turning from welfare services and crisis-intervention to early childhood development. Last year, following an extensive planning process, Starfish embarked on an ambitious and long term strategy – to drive measurable results in the outcome for children living in low income families. While the city of Detroit has a well-understood case for support, there is also a high level of poverty in suburban ring communities, like Dearborn, Westland and Inkster. In Inkster, 57% of the children, ages 5 and under, live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. According to the latest U.S. Census, two thirds of Inkster children live in single-female households. For children under five years old, that percentage jumps to 82.5%.
Baby Power and the Jewish connection
Last year, to reach young mothers and pregnant teens at risk for depression and other factors that can impede mother-baby bonding, Starfish piloted Baby Power, a program in partnership with the University of Michigan Depression Center and with generous grants from both The Jewish Fund and Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.
Baby Power provides a unique combination of prenatal education, home-based assessment and support, group therapy, parenting classes, community outreach and social events. Moms are invited to begin the curriculum as early as their first trimester and continue through their baby’s first year of life. To attract young mothers to the program, Starfish holds “Community Baby Showers” and circulates its “Diaper and Formula Van” on a regular basis at community food pantries, schools and recreational centers.
The parenting classes in the program are dual purpose: moms come in with their children for a weekly two-hour session, where they share a meal, then break out for talk therapy, while their children enjoy supervised preschool activities in a separate area.
“From the moment moms walk through the door, everything we do is purposeful,” says Jennifer Jonika MS, LLP, Program Manager of Maternal and Early Childhood Clinical Services at Starfish. “We‘re modeling behavior, treating moms exactly the way we teach them to interact with their babies.”
So far, so good
Baby Power has been a revelation for many. A mom of a three-year old with typical separation anxiety commented, “My son is really comfortable here; in fact, he didn’t want to leave last week, and couldn’t wait to come back today. He’s never been in a play group like this, so it’s great practice for January when he begins preschool here.”
“We talk about the strength of our Jewish communal network – but what people may not realize is how far-reaching that is,” says Ron. “Years ago, Starfish won the hearts of Marjorie and Max M. Fisher, and their philanthropy in turn, encouraged their son Phillip Fisher to engage with the organization. Phillip then brought others in the community to follow his lead on the Board. It’s all about people. Jonathan (Citrin) called me one day and said ‘I’m involved with this wonderful organization why don’t you come and see what it’s all about?’ And I did, and when you walk into this place, and see the passion and commitment of this organization, you can’t help but say – I want to be a part.”