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Helping families find a new path: A Q&A with Atlanta social worker Naomi Haynes

Christina Joseph By Christina Joseph

Naomi Haynes helps homeless families start fresh. Step by step, she walks them through the process of transitioning into new homes in an Atlanta apartment complex that reserves more than 30 units for those in need. She helps new residents read and understand lease agreements and arranges to have furniture and clothing donated. But the real work begins once a family is finally settled.

Naomi, 36, is a licensed clinical social worker and program coordinator who oversees the Shelter-A-Family program at Families First. What started as an orphanage more than 120 years ago has evolved into a family-services agency devoted to building stronger communities by creating pathways of success for children.

Families First is a community partner of Aetna, which supports the organization through grants and sponsorships to help fund foster care and adoption services, parenting classes for teenage mothers, financial education, counseling, and supportive housing such as Shelter-A-Family. “Our two organizations share a similar philosophy of focusing on a family’s total well-being, as we both look to ensure that families have the resources available to achieve and maintain overall wellness,” explains Brian Schenkemeyer, vice president, Southeast market leader for national accounts at Aetna. “Learning healthy behaviors and incorporating social and emotional support create a strong foundation for families and communities.”

Naomi’s primary goal is to ensure families have a safe place to live, while also teaching them to become advocates for their own health and well-being. She and her team refer families for counseling, educational programs, health screenings and other services. “We let them know that this is a housing program — but we are here to provide support and get them connected with other resources so they can become healthy,” Naomi says.

She says the 360-degree approach is yielding great results in the community: Adult residents feel better, eat better, parent better and learn more about themselves, while their children thrive. Here Naomi shares her thoughts on improving the lives of the families in her care and how she finds work-life balance.

Q: What is your role at Families First?
A: In addition to supervising our staff, I work directly with our residents on landlord-tenant issues, starting with helping them navigate the leasing process when they first arrive. I’m responsible for grant management and reporting, as well as planning and implementation of the numerous programs we offer families. I’ve also started managing some of the cases.

Q: How long do families stay in the Shelter-A-Family program?
A: It’s considered a permanent supportive housing program. They can stay until they feel they're ready to move on — five to six years on average. When they're able to support themselves, they can move to another type of subsidized housing, by receiving a voucher for an apartment. But not being able to afford housing is the major fear for a lot of the families. Our program removes that fear so they can focus on other matters.

Q: Why does Families First call it “supportive housing”?
We’re not just giving a family a place to live, but also a way of life. If we don’t address all the residents’ problems from a holistic perspective, they may be back [in our programs] because they’ll keep running into the same roadblocks. A lot of them have health conditions and social issues, such as illiteracy or trouble communicating. We treat those problems, too, by addressing simple things like helping them ask the right questions of doctors. We can also get them counseling for a traumatic life event, or to help them interact better with their children.

Q: What are some classes you offer to families living on site?
We teach everyday things, from time management, financial and computer literacy, and developing healthy relationships to setting appropriate boundaries. Some individuals have physical and mental health issues, like diabetes, hypertension, depression. We offered a class on living a healthy life with chronic health conditions, which dealt with how to manage your life and stress. We also partner with other organizations on nutrition and healthy eating —preparing healthy meals on a budget and understanding how to read the nutrition labels.

Q: Do you see a better future for the children whose parents participate in the program?
Absolutely. Aysha Thomas and her mom, who has struggled with addiction, came to us when they were homeless. We gave them housing and counseling. When Aysha became pregnant at 15, our teenage pregnancy and parenting program taught her how to be a healthier mom for her son. Aysha continues to seek out new opportunities. She’s participated in our Youth Connect groups, which focus on healthy living, communication and other life skills, as well as nutrition classes. This year, we nominated her for a national youth leadership program, where she attended a three-day conference in Atlanta. She’s trying to do her best, and I always give her encouragement. (Watch Aysha’s inspiring story below.)  

[Aysha Voiceover] I was just almost done with eighth grade and we was on the verge of being homeless, it was tough.

In Atlanta, many low-income families are really struggling just to make ends meet. Their health is at stake. Their hope for a better future is at stake.

Families First is one of Aetna's community partners. Through their support we're able to offer a holistic approach to supporting families at risk, ensuring that they become advocates for their own health and well-being.

Everybody's health goals are unique. We help the families that we work with achieve their goals through provider-supported services.

For example, it wasn't until Aysha and her family moved into the program that we were able to learn all of the needs that they really had.

[Aysha] My mom, she was a drug addict. She went to treatment, but it didn't work out. She ended up going back out. I was the head of household at the age of 10.

[Naomi] Not only did we provide housing support for her mom and her siblings, but we also provided counseling services. We decided to focus on just four types of verbal communication, and I bet somebody here could name at least one.

A lot of clients that we work with, they don't know what healthy communication looks like. They don't know what a stable family life looks like.

Aysha wasn't taught healthy parenting skills, so when she got pregnant at 15, she was not in a good position to be a mom.

I was scared, I did not know what to expect.

[Nkem] Our Teenage Pregnant and Parenting Program taught her how to be a healthier mom for her son. The importance of spending one-on-one time with Amari, getting down on his level, giving him eye contact, showing him affection.

[Aysha] Certain things I do with my son, I don't remember if my mom did with me. It all makes me want to be a better mom to my son. I want my son to be healthy, I'm learning as I go.

[Naomi] We know that our program is definitely working and is getting to Aysha because we see it in Amari.


Elephant. Yeah, elephant. Good job!

[Naomi] We see him hitting all the appropriate milestones. We see him engaging in school and developing more.

[Nkem] You know, none of these programs alone would have provided Aysha and her family the support that they needed, but with all of those programs combined, they've been able to thrive.

[Aysha] My goals for the future is to graduate high school. I have to do this, 'cause I have a little one looking up to me, I just want my son to know that Mom did it and he can do it, too. To be the first one to graduate, to see that big old smile on my momma face as well as the people who supported me like Families First, that's gonna be a moment I am not gonna never forget.

Q: What’s your most memorable moment at Families First?
I remember one family who came to us in 2008. The oldest son was around 12. We helped guide them to various programs to meet each of their needs. Eventually, the teen went to live with an older sibling, finished school and got a job. Last year, after his mom passed away, this young man, who was now 20, relocated back here and got temporary guardianship of his two younger siblings, ages 8 and 13. He found a full-time job and enrolled in our parenting classes. He arranged his work schedule so he could be home when his sister got home from school. He helped her with homework in our computer lab. He remembered being homeless with his mother; now, he and his siblings live in a place of their own. I am so proud of him. I think of where he was as a teenager and how he could have easily gone down the wrong path. Whatever he got from his mom and from us, it changed the whole outlook for this family.

Q: Your day is surrounded by people with so much hardship. What gives you joy?
I'm working with people on their goals, but every now and then, I need to reflect on that for myself. So, I try to carve out some time for myself, spending time with family and writing poetry. I currently do liturgical dance at my church. I love to travel and learn about different cultures. I meet up with some of my friends and we'll go to different parks and walk on a trail, or climb Stone Mountain, and just be in nature.

Q: What’s your top health priority?
In this job, you're constantly going, and thinking about the next person and the next thing that needs to be done. If you don’t stop to take a moment, you can burn out. I’ve realized it’s important to replenish yourself and give back to yourself, so you can give back to those who need a lot. I make sure to take a day off or do things I enjoy. I’ve also recently started daily affirmations.

Q: Do you have an affirmation that resonates with you?
Romans 8:28 has helped motivate me and refocus on my purpose: “And we know that all things work together for the good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.” Despite working with individuals who are dealing with a lot of challenges, I show up every day, doing my best to make an impact that day.

For Naomi, the impact of her work may not be immediate, but the successes do eventually come. In 2017, eight families left the program to rent apartments using subsidies. Two children are graduating high school and two others are in college. “We're here because everybody needs somebody, but at some point, they will be able to do it on their own,” she says.


About the author

Christina Joseph Robinson is a veteran editor and writer from New Jersey who still loves to read the old-fashioned newspaper. She’s raising two fruit-and-veggie loving daughters to balance all the treats Grandma sends their way. Christina’s health goal is to resume her workout routine after being sidelined by injuries.

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