The dining table sits at the heart of the home, creating a communal gathering place for meals, chats, homework, and board game nights.
Yet with the distractions of telephones and the divisions created by busy schedules, a family meal today could only be found in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Families have lost “the art of communicating around the dinner table,” said Janice Justice, executive director of Comprehensive Juvenile Services, Inc. (CJS).
Aiming to restore connection for families, CJS hosts the Family Strengthening Program, designed to teach households the skills to renew relationships, set clear boundaries, and monitor their children’s well-being and activities.
CJS began hosting the free program in 2019, which was created by psychologist Karol L. Kumpfer in 1982. The evidence-based program was designed to support at-risk teens and families.
Belinda Scott, assistant director of Comprehensive Juvenile Services, Inc. and site coordinator for the Strengthening Families program, said, “Any teenager is appropriate for the Strengthening Families program because all teenagers are at risk or exposed to certain factors within school, in the home.”
Families are referred to the program through juvenile courts, direct service officers, probation officers and community agencies that serve families.
Before diving into each week’s topic, families sit around the table and share a meal, with food provided by Charolette Tidwell, founder of Antioch for Youth & Family.
Justice said the program encourages conversations by asking families to put their phones away during mealtimes and group sessions.
Scott described how the session breaks into groups of teens and parents for discussions led by trained coaches before coming together to practice different life skills as a family unit.
“It really helps when parents and teens are apart because they have time to talk to each other, peer-to-peer, kind of like a support group for each other,” Scott said.
Justice later added: “It is useful for parents to know that there are other parents who are going through the same thing as them.”
Each lesson breaks down communication and relationship building into actionable steps.
Scott said the first lesson focuses on compliments “because it’s something that somebody gives, but a lot of people don’t know how to get a compliment.”
“We also have a family tree activity … where the family lists on the family tree the strengths of each of the family members within their household,” Scott said.
During the 11-week program, families cover a variety of topics, including problem solving, managing stress and anger, and keeping kids drug and alcohol free.
For the past two years, the program has weathered the coronavirus pandemic, which has impacted its attendance numbers and required a larger space for the group to meet.
Local organizations have opened their doors for the sessions, including First Presbyterian Church, St. James Missionary Baptist Church and Central Christian Church in Fort Smith, Bethlehem Free Will Baptist Church in Van Buren and Crawford County Adult Education Center.
More than 60 families have taken the program so far, Scott said, most of whom have found the sessions helpful and encouraging.
“The support that the teenagers have with each other, the parents with each other, as well as the coaching from the coaches, I think, really helps,” Scott said. “And having the weekly incentives… also the free lunch, just time to get together as a family. It’s really encouraging to witness and see.
How to support the program
To continue to serve families, CJS is looking for more volunteers to help provide free child care during the sessions of the Family Strengthening Program.
CJS is also looking for local businesses to donate door prizes to families participating in the program, such as restaurant meals, movie tickets or other family outings.
For more information, contact Belinda Scott, assistant director of Comprehensive Juvenile Services, Inc. and site coordinator for the Strengthening Families program, at [email protected] or 479-474-5031.