Families First, now 25 years old, was built on history of perseverance

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 23, 2019

SALISBURY — When Jeannie Sherrill was going through old records, trying to put together a history for Families First-NC Inc.’s 25th anniversary, she realized she had to start eight years earlier.

The roots of the organization, for which Sherrill is executive director, actually trace back to 1986 — and a disturbing statistic.

At the time, Rowan County’s teen pregnancy rate was 103 per 1,000 for women 15 to 19 years old, higher than the state average of 96 per 1,000.

State officials recognized the high teen pregnancy rates in North Carolina as a whole and established the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Council. It challenged all counties to develop a program to reduce teen pregnancy rates.

So under the leadership of the Rowan County Health Department, the Rowan County Council on Adolescent Pregnancy formed and held its first meeting June 2, 1986.

Sherrill says the group worked tirelessly over the next eight years to seek funding, establish programs and deal with resistance, controversy, tire slashings and even death threats to develop a family life curriculum for students that was focused on pregnancy prevention.

Just thinking about what they accomplished is humbling, Sherrill says.

“It was incredible this group persevered,” she adds.

Sherrill likes to think of a Margaret Mead quote that she hopes to share this Sunday when Families First celebrates its 25th year as a nonprofit organization. The “Flip-flops and Flamingos” bash at the F&M Trolley Barn is the agency’s major fundraiser (see box).

Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Families First is a perfect example of this, Sherrill says.

Today, the nationally accredited organization’s mission is “to strengthen all Rowan County families by providing information, education, prevention and support services.”

It offers parenting skills classes through programs such as Strengthening Families and Incredible Years.

It may best be known for its Teen Parenting Program Initiative and Good Beginnings, aimed at giving teen mothers parenting and child development instruction while encouraging them to stay in school, graduate and possibly continue their education in postsecondary fields.

Families First’s Second Step program serves 11 elementary schools and Head Starts, teaching young children to have empathy and respect for each other and give them emotional and social skills to counteract bullying.

Families First staffs a full-time, five-days-a-week child care center at the Rowan County Courthouse, and it also provides supervised visitation and exchanges of children between parents and guardians through its Visitation Station.

When it became the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Council of Rowan County in 1994, the organization was first housed in Building 42 on the Salisbury VA Medical Center campus.

Five other headquarters would follow. Today, its home is 135 Mocksville Ave., in the upstairs rooms (Suite 2) of Salisbury OBGYN.

The organization’s name changed to Families First about five years ago.

Dr. Joel Goodwin (still a member of the Families First board) and the late Edith Alcorn are considered the father and mother of the organization.

Goodwin was involved in launching the “Let’s Talk” monthly presentations about teen pregnancy and participated in a “Unite to Prevent Teen Pregnancy” luncheon in November 1987 that was part of an information and awareness campaign.

Goodwin’s wife, Joyce, also has been an instrumental board member since 1999.

By 1990, Patricia Reece led the establishment of a program teaching like skills for middle schoolers.

In 1991-92, the Rowan County Council on Adolescent Pregnancy contracted with Focus Theater of Charlotte to present dramatic vignettes at middle schools that highlighted challenges and decisions teenagers have to make.

Meanwhile, Goodwin and Alcorn, the supervisor of health educators at the Health Department, developed the family life curriculum that the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Council taught in Rowan-Salisbury Schools from 1995 to 2009.

The council and Rowan-Salisbury Schools actually became partners in the family life curriculum in 1991, but it took four years before it was field-tested in June 1995 and implemented in the schools that fall.

So it didn’t come easy, and a lot of groundwork had to be done by Health Department educators such as Becky Wadsworth, Karen Young, Teresa Brantley and Melissa Shue.

There were plenty of conversations — and misconceptions — as the pregnancy prevention message was shared with churches, parents and the community at large.

Though it was designed as an age-appropriate, abstinence-based curriculum for the schools, people made wrong assumptions until they came into the classes, listened and saw what was happening, Shue says.

The assumptions were things such as the classes were giving out condoms and birth-control pills or promoting abortions.

“The goal was to give children the proper facts and for them to think through things,” says Shue, who today works with a different agency — Prevent Child Abuse Rowan and the Terrie Hess House.

“We have to have these conversations because it’s detrimental if we don’t. If children learn from each other, they learn the wrong things.”

The early days of today’s Families First had many heroes. Shue and Sherrill list names such as Goodwin, Alcorn, Reece, Brantley, Cynda Wood, Margaret Kluttz, Fred and Alice Stanback, Tim Smith (with RSS), Mark Lewis and April McIntyre.

“These people didn’t give up,” Shue says. “I’ll tell you right now, that was a labor of love.”

Families First (again, not always that name) has had only three executive directors over 25 years — Wood, from July 1995 to March 1999; Carol Ann Houpe, from May 1999 to January 2009; and Sherrill for the past 10 years.

Through the years it has been associated with programs such as SOS, Positive Discipline, Children of Divorce, She Talk, Teens Taking Charge, Wise Guys, Parents As Teachers, the Nurturing Program, Teen Club, WIC and Dealing With Tough Issues.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools took over the family life classes in 2009 when North Carolina passed the Healthy Youth Act, which gave guidelines and evidence-based curriculums for these required classes.

So how is Rowan County doing now with its teen pregnancy rate?

Sherrill says 2017 data from the Sexual Health Initiative for Teens showed Rowan with a pregnancy rate of 36.9 per 1,000 15- to 19-year-old women, which is a 13.2 percent increase from 2016.

The state average is a pregnancy rate of 26.7 per 1,000. Sherrill says Rowan ranks 22nd among the 100 counties in the number of teen pregnancies, “and we’re not happy about that.”

Families First would like to be invited back into the schools again with its pregnancy prevention curriculum.

“As a small agency, we’re little but loud,” Sherrill says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.