Family Success Center celebrates 20 years of transforming lives

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From left to right: Former FSC director Marie Johnson, current director Emma Clapp and former director Tammy Jackson celebrate 20 years of the Family Success Center in Etowah County. Jon Vo/The Chamber. 

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

The word legacy endures a substantial weight – prompting minds to consider their influence on those around them and what it is they may leave behind.

In December of 2021, Family Success Center of Etowah County celebrated a legacy of 20 years dedicated to its community, reflecting on the inspirational story that spanned two decades, and determining that the best chapters remain unwritten.

Three generations of executive directors attested to Family Success Center’s impact on Etowah County, carrying the center through endless eras of service, reflecting on its transformative mission that transcends time. As a non-profit organization that provides countless services to evoke positive change – from counseling to financial stability to relationship courses – the center’s commitment to helping others proves paramount. Previous directors Marie Johnson and Tammy Jackson, alongside current director Emma Clapp illustrated Family Success Center’s heart for its community, representing an indispensable hub of resources dedicated to the betterment of its county.

As the center’s first director, Johnson travelled backward to 1999, revisiting Family Success Center’s origin. The center’s inception resides with community pillars whose shared passion for developing a centralized social and family resource center manifested in an organization that would support and strengthen residents for decades. With the collaborative efforts of Bob Echols, Karen Owen, Mike Haney and Greg Bennett, who forged strong partnerships with the City of Gadsden, United Way of Etowah County and Gadsden State Community College, the earliest days of Family Success Center blossomed in a temporary location referred to lovingly as “the little blue house.”

Johnson’s experience in marketing, human resources and leadership as Franklin County’s former Chamber of Commerce director, and her extensive volunteering with United Way, prompted the center to welcome her aboard its team. She and licensed social worker Kelly Clark began seeing clients in early 2000, working with agencies to assist people as the center transitioned into its eventual home – as an element of the East Gadsden Revitalization Project – at 821 East Broad Street.

“We started growing Family Success Center as a community need,” said Johnson. “Family resource centers spin off the community need where they are, targeting the key issues in the community. All communities are different [in what those needs are], but all centers are the same in that we’re providing a bulk amount of community services under one roof.”

Johnson shared that working with the center enlightened her eyes and broadened her perspective. She noted that prior to her involvement with the center, she was unaware of the true realities so many individuals face on a daily basis.

“Everybody that walks in that door has a problem and you’re there to help them solve those problems,” said Johnson, discussing how strong partnerships proved essential in aiding clients. “In order to provide positive consistent services for the community, you have to rely on partnerships. A problem doesn’t just come up today and go away tomorrow. The center was developed to be that support as you work through a problem. Our goal was to help – to have the strength of partners between the Health Department, Department of Human Resources [and other agencies] to build that complex, to have ease of accessibility, to have partners that strengthened families and helped them through the process.”

Jackson stepped into Johnson’s shoes as the center’s second director in 2017, following her own contributions as a member of the organization’s board. As a pastor who served Etowah County for a number of years, Jackson’s decision to apply for the role of director stemmed from her alignment with Family Success Center’s mission: “to strengthen the families of Etowah County until they are financially stable, emotionally healthy and nonviolent.”

“I’m absolutely convinced that strong families are a part of a steady and stable community,” said Jackson. “We need strong families. I loved that Family Success Center was looking for how we can help families do better and I love the fact that they brought so many agencies together, making it really easy to coordinate and collaborate with them.”

Jackson stated that Family Success Center’s cohesive approach to serving all facets of a person’s life coincides with its incredibly accessible coordinated resources, which emerge mere steps away from one another in the same building. She gave the example of a hypothetical mother attending an early childhood parenting course with United Way’s Success By 6 H.O.P.E. program, only to reveal that domestic violence is occurring in her relationship. That mother and her children can walk down the hall to Eve Hamrick, the representative for 2nd Chance, Inc., an organization which provides supportive services for those seeking to escape abusive situations. Should Hamrick discover that nutrition is an issue within the home as a result of debt, she can refer that mother to the center’s financial stability coach to assist her as she walks toward self-sufficiency.

“Everybody wants a simple solution to something, but almost everything is more complicated than we want to think it is,” said Jackson. “You don’t have enough money? Get a job. You have a lot of debt? Pay it off. Life is much more complicated than that…very often, it’s not one solution, it’s a network of solutions. It’s not one meeting, it’s walking alongside somebody for one, two or five years to help them get to a better place. So many people say, ‘It’s too hard; I give up.’ You just need somebody to say, ‘Don’t give up. It can be done. Let’s do it together.’”

Just as all aspects of life are interconnected, all resources underneath Family Success Center’s roof entwine, locking fingers to create a stalwart network of vital pieces that patch puzzles and combat challenges arising in narratives countywide. Yet the center recognizes that a person’s current story does not define their legacy, ministering the hope of greater chapters in all the days to come – a mantra Clapp upholds with steadfast determination and a compassionate heart.

Since 2013, Clapp’s unwavering commitment to the families of Etowah County proved evident in the vital numerous responsibilities she undertook from her first moments at Family Success Center. Prior to becoming director, Clapp served as a Financial Stability Coach, guiding 28 people in budgeting and saving money in order to close on homes. A Certified Family Life Educator, Clapp acted as Parent Educator of the HOME Program, and the Program Director of the Alabama Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Initiative. While her vast experience concerning the innerworkings of the center prepared her for her role as director, Clapp’s personal passion nurtures her belief in the center’s invaluable efforts.

“I am passionate about the Family Success Center because I could’ve used any one of these services at any point in my life,” said Clapp, who chooses to work at the center to nurture others. “I know how many people out there who could’ve benefitted from these services, who didn’t know they existed. The people who have walked these halls [and who are working here today] are some of the most amazing, hardworking people in Etowah County.”

“They just sit back quietly and work behind the scenes. It’s not about what they do, it’s about what they can do to make someone’s life better. We just want to help. We’re not in it for the money or glory; we’re just in it because we want these families to do better, because it could’ve very easily been any of us. Chances are, it has been.”

Recognizing that the term “family” possesses numerous definitions and manifests in endless, broad descriptions reiterates the center’s welcoming environment. Jackson attested to the fact that not all families look the same, and not all families fit that traditional nuclear mold. For some, a family is two grandparents raising their grandchildren. For others, a family is a single mother or father. Regardless of who filters into the family unit, Family Success Center offers well rounded services applicable to their lives, understanding that difficulties can happen to anyone.

Clapp commended her coworkers and former directors, who share her devotion to preserving the center’s mission and evoking tangible and positive change in each person who walks through the center’s doors. She shared that she garnered a strong foundation and understanding of what people and communities need, how to cooperate with community partners and sustain relationships from Johnson, while Jackson taught her how to establish change – moving forward knowing that although every decision might not prove popular, ultimately, each decision should reflect the community’s best interests.

Clapp emphasized that a fundamental element in the fabric of Family Success is the center’s commitment to maintaining a non-judgmental and unprejudiced approach to its clients. Often, individuals undergoing crisis or difficulty experience shame and embarrassment that hinders them from seeking help, regardless of the fact that most find themselves in these circumstances unintentionally. Clapp and her staff strive to shatter that stigma, meeting families where they are in each moment, attending to their immediate needs before addressing the root of the problem and searching for a solution.

Immediate needs influence long-term needs. If a person is hungry, he or she cannot focus on other issues pertaining to their wellbeing, because that lack of nutrition affects their entire ability to function. Clapp explained that one of the center’s present goals hinges on providing direct access for those urgent ailments, reflected in initiatives such as its food pantry located at the office.

“I’ve seen so many lives touched here,” said Clapp. “Just in the past year, I’ve seen people come here looking for domestic violence assistance and the entire community come together to furnish a house for this person. You send out one email and the next thing you know, people are delivering furniture. I’ve seen people have Christmas for the first time in years, and they have presents to open. I’ve worked with families who were on the edge of divorce who have come back together and are now living more peaceful, happier lives with their children.”

“There’s not one person in this office today or in the past 20 years that hasn’t changed the life of somebody. These people cry for their clients, they pray for them and they think about them when they go home. The things we see here are very touching, but I’m more curious about the things we don’t get to see. Once clients think we’re finished with them, once they’re good and move on…I think those are where our best stories are.”

Continual needs assessments as the community evolves remains one of Clapp’s goals for upcoming years, as well as focusing on four prominent underserved components in the county: mental health, substance abuse, children and adults with disabilities and homelessness. As the center moves forward, she plans to incorporate further programming for each of these areas and more.

Just as the center established itself as an incredible outlet for its community two decades ago, its workers lay the foundation for an illustrious legacy. With generous, kind and instrumental leaders such as Clapp, Jackson and Johnson collaborating with innovative, passionate coworkers to unify solid partnerships, the center’s flame never dims. Rather, as its staff grants others with the inspiration to travel onward, the center’s light shines brighter and brighter – illuminating Etowah County as a beacon of hope for all generations to come.

“If someone comes in off the street and they need something, it’s magical,” said Clapp, describing how each staff member greets that individual with care and a heart eager to serve – something that will never change. “I want people to feel like no matter how bad they’ve got it, no matter how twisted things have become, no matter how much life threw at me, I can walk in the doors of Family Success Center and there are people who line up to figure out what I need to make my life better. When you walk in today, you walk out with help. When you walk away, you can say, ‘I felt like I was alone yesterday, but today I know I’m not.’ They now have a tomorrow to look forward to. They don’t have to do it by themselves…that’s what I want our legacy to be.”

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