Downey Side... On the Side of FOSTER KIDS

1-8oo-us-child/ WWW.DOWNEYSIDE.ORG

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Adopting Older Children & Siblings

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By Ian Keldoulis.- Board Member, Downey Side.

When Donna and Charles first saw Jenna’s picture online their hearts jumped. The more they learned about her, the more they wanted to give her a home. Mature in years, they weren’t interested in an infant or a toddler—way too much running around. They wanted a school-aged child, not yet a teenager. Jenna, 9 years old and living in foster care in the North West, fit the bill perfectly.

Surely, getting an American child whose birth parents had relinquished rights would be a smoother and less costly process than searching overseas as Donna’s sister had done, adopting two Asian girls over a period of a few years. And they wanted to avoid surprises like some friends experienced when they adopted two girls from Russia who turned out to be severely mentally disabled.

Adopting a child in the US, however, brings its own set of complications. While there is far more information about American children than their foreign counterparts available to potential parents, extracting and understanding it is a challenge. And the greatest difficulty of all can be navigating the system containing that information and housing the children. Even though Donna and Charles had several years experience as foster parents—looking after siblings and individual children— when the time finally came to adopt a child they still needed assistance.

Fostering children as Donna and Charles did is an excellent form of preparation but it’s not a practical step for everyone. Natasha and Jason also weighed international adoption but felt, “there were so many kids in the US.” When they saw a brochure about adopting older children at a seminar in Brooklyn, NY, they made up their minds. They now have three children, biological siblings aged 15, 11 and 8 but it was a two-year process getting there and one that required much help along the way.

If you’re heading down the path to adopting older children and siblings in the US the “best practices” learned by both sets of parents can make the journey simpler.

1. Work with the right agency

Through a local network of adoptive parents Donna and Charles discovered Downey Side, an agency specializing in adopting older children, siblings and children with development issues. It was also Downey Side’s brochure that caught the attention of Natasha and Jason. The agency looks at adoption through a different lens; they aren’t engaged in finding children for parents so much as finding parents for children.  Their key measure of appropriateness is the level of commitment of prospective parents. There must be no doubt that parents are truly in it for the long haul. Economic and social considerations aren’t regarded as barriers, just as they aren’t for biological parents. To this end, Downey Side has placed children with gay couples and single parents. Donna and Charles’ commitment was without question. Natasha and Jason were the same. But what was also readily apparent was their shared frustration.

2. Empower yourself

"We looked into 20-25 groups of siblings," recounted Natasha. "Looking at kids, you keep calling but don’t hear back from the caseworker. It’s frustrating." While she and Jason had been warned not to get attached to the photos they saw online, the experience can be demoralizing.

As a parent, you must feel that you can make the right decisions. Empowerment comes through access to information and becoming educated about how to interpret the information. A good agency will help you to acquire this knowledge. They will let you know that ultimately, the decisions are yours, not the case worker’s or even the children’s.

3. Educate yourself.

Before your family is certified by the state to accept children from foster care, you must be fully aware of the effects foster care has on children as well as the abuse and neglect that is pervasive in the system.

“You need to understand the write ups of the kids plus the jargon and the mindset of the social workers,” explains Charles. He also feels as caseloads increase and budget cuts affect social services departments the write ups on children are getting briefer, “one or two sentences aren’t enough”. Donna compares them to real estate listings that need to be carefully parsed for the truth.

As write ups shrink, case files are growing ever larger and more complex.

Sometimes the information covering a child’s entire life in foster care is simply overwhelming, “Reading the files, you look at some and say ‘we couldn’t handle this’,” Natasha relates. About some daunting cases of physically abused and psychologically damaged children, she continues, “Downey Side helped us read through the files and read between the lines. Some things are sugarcoated.”

4. Talk to other adoptive parents

Charles and Donna volunteer to meet prospective adoptive parents and share their experiences. They see it as a vital step on the path to preparedness.

For many prospective parents the conversation they have at this time is a moment of truth. Charles recounted the story of first meeting Jenna to a group, “We asked her what was on her Christmas list, and she didn’t know what that was. One couple was in tears. These kids are really needy and the simple things are really big for them.”

It can take weeks, months and years for kids to overcome the deprivations of foster care. Hearing the truth from adoptive parents helps prospective parents to comprehend what lies ahead.  Of course, sharing the satisfactions and triumphs is just as important, too.

4. Have a trusted advocate

Charles and Donna found that often social workers were more willing to communicate with peers, “They want to talk to other social workers, not to parents themselves,” explains Charles.  Downey Side proved more able to get privileged information. “There was a child we were interested in who’d been arrested for arson. And we weren’t told that.”

Ask the adoption agency to help you to obtain as much information on the child as possible. Review the files with them and make sure they’re explaining any unstated or overstated material in terms you understand. They should also assist you in getting personal interviews with people involved in the child’s life. And get them to help you sharpen your own questions.

An hour-long conference call with ten people, including Texas case workers and foster parents highlighted Natasha and Jason’s reliance on an intermediary. “Downey Side ensured all the right questions were asked,” recalls Donna.  “And guided us on how to interpret some of the answers particularly with the foster parents who because they have a financial stake in looking after the kids have a different slant. You’re taking away their paycheck.”

5. Get your child excited about his/her new life

The child’s needs are core of the new relationship. What they really need is a loving, committed, parental relationship but what they want is what they see on TV. That’s probably not what they’re getting.

Acting on Downey Side’s advice, Natasha made a “scrapbook” for each child that was sent to them while still in their foster home. “It was personalized so each kid would feel special and wanted with details about their rooms, the color schemes, and pictures of the extended family and Christmas tree.”

6. Understand your life is going to change—drastically— forever

"The hardest part is at the beginning, getting ready to receive the kids," feels Natasha. "There’s a million things to plan and do. Your mind is always racing."

When working through Downey Side there is no “trial run”, parents must be fully committed to the adoption before meeting the children.  However, most states take about 6 months or longer to legally formalize the adoption.

7. Get support

"You need someone to talk to," advises Natasha. "Your life is turned upside down."

Post adoptive support is crucial for all family members. “Their baggage becomes your baggage. They have their own view on life shaped by their experience.” Natasha elaborates, “this was especially true of the eldest, who had 11 years of misguidance from her biological and foster parents, starting around 4 years of age. But finally she’s found a therapist she can trust.”

Charles and Donna have been through plenty of ups and downs with Jenna over the past five years. Along with their own support group of friends they’ve continued to rely on Downey Side.  ”They understood where Jenna was coming from,” as Charles puts it, “Plus they knew we could also get financial assistance for her medical needs and counseling from her state of origin.”

In Jenna’s case, she was “super quiet and immaculately organized” when she first moved into her new home, a sign of having internalized her problems. But after 5 years of therapy, her parents are happy that her room is now as messy as any typical teenager.

8. Remember the biggest rewards come to those taking the biggest risks

Having a family or extending your family is always a risk. Whether you are able to have your own biological children or if you choose to adopt there is no guarantee you’ll get the children of your dreams. But if you choose to adopt a child from foster care, you can be sure you’re giving someone a better chance of realizing his or her own dreams. What could be more American than that?   

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We Urgently Need Your Help

We urgently need your help

Hurricane Sandy severely damaged many of the communities we depend on for support. And government funding cuts have made private donations even more vital to our survival. 

We’re shoring up our long-term finances but need to raise $20,000 to cover current operating costs. 

Please help today. Your donation will make an immediate difference.

Donate today by clicking here: http://www.downeyside.org/donate.php

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The Saga of 3 Brothers Waiting

The Saga of Three Brothers waiting — Part 3

            A big fat -0-

We don’t know the status of the boys or the status of the search being conducted by the social workers. We assume that a number of social workers are reading the files on the other families. It should be the front-line worker and her supervisor at least right? It also should be a couple of other people. Unfortunately, there is a definite possibility that it is just the front-line worker, if she has the time. However, we have heard -0- from the State who has custody of them.

Please know that we’re not singling out this State because we could have, and have had, experiences like this in just about every state in the Union –with just about every case we’ve evwer had.

What else is happening in this case? Two of us in this office discussed how our response to the worker. We decided that we should do nothing. Our experience is that if we push too hard (i.e. more than a gentle nudge), we get shut out. The social worker closes us down for that particular case and any other cases they have. This sometimes includes the other social workers in their unit. So, our best bet is to give the worker 2-3 weeks before we call again. We discouraged the family from calling the social worker, too. They are very upset at the turn of events and asked if there isn’t something that can’t be done. 

Sure. We can call supervisors.  But only if  our family gets turned down and the children remain on the To Be Adopted list and our family hasn’t given up. If those three conditions are met, we’ll call the Governor if we have to. If we can. If we in fact wind up going that far, it will take a month at a very minimum.

If we get to the Governor, all the supervisor has to do is explain that in her opinion, the family can’t handle the children. No politician in his right mind would push past that.

But, we’re ahead of ourselves. One other thing happened, the family decided, tearfully and after praying about it, to look at other children.

So, nothing happened this week. Oh, right. The children grew another week older. Hmmm, what did the little one learn in 2nd grade? Did the oldest one decide that any girls

are particularly cute?  And, the one in the middle? Did he have fun in gym? Did he get to eat his favorite meal this week? Does a week last long for a child? Yup. So yup, some big things happened in the case this week.

 Brother Terence Taffe, OFM Cap
State Program Manager
Mission Office Family Life Center
1-800-US-CHILD X21

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Displaced Children

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Life seems to be complicated today with many choices before us. In order to make right decisions, we need to educate ourselves in those areas of choices. Working in adoption for foster care children, I see an even more complex situation that doesn’t often get included for consideration. I didn’t know about this option, nor did I realize the magnitude of the problem, until I explored this alternative to childbirth.

There are families that have carried their children to term and for one reason or another, was unable to properly care for them, what happens to them, is they get handed over to our government to raise. Can you imagine, being one of those children, reliant upon our government to meet all of your needs? Needless to say each department of the government does not always agree with the other department on how that care should be, thus creating gaps in the system. Foster parents come forward to temporarily care for them; however there are not enough of them. Some are doing it for the right reason and thank God for them, but some are not. Everyone is trying to do their best, but is their best good enough?

Currently there are an estimated five hundred thousand children in the United States foster care system and about one hundred and fifty thousand are free and clear for adoption. That’s a lot of displaced children without a family, without a mom or a dad to love them, care for them, and often times they get separated from their siblings. This is heartbreaking and traumatizing for them. They are vulnerable and at the mercy of the state. I recently came across a four year old child, who has already been in four different foster care families. She had been neglected, physically, sexually, and verbally abused. Her story is seemingly commonplace among these children in the system. Fortunately, we were able to place her in a safe loving adoptive home, but I ask you, “how are we taking care of life in all of its stages, when we have this epidemic of displaced children before us?” Who is hearing their voices cry out for love and healing?

My heart breaks for each child that comes across my desk. I read their stories, and I want to fight for them, find them loving homes, and change the system. Becoming an adoptive parent, I learned personally of their wounds and how deep and vast they run. I am now grateful for the “dysfunctional childhood” I had, because in comparison ….there is no comparison.

To quote one homeless child from the book, “sometimes God has a child’s face” wrote, I am so alone, so desperate, so lonely, “Why have I ended up like this? What have I done wrong? Help me understand, God- Why, doesn’t anyone love me?” another wrote, “On the street I saw a girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of a decent meal. I became angry and said to God: ‘why did you permit this? Why don’t you do something about it? For a while God said nothing. That night he replied quite suddenly: ‘I certainly did something about it. I made you!

Football hero, Michael Oher’s life story in the movie “blind side” was a great depiction inside of the life of many of these children. His adoptive mom at the Super bowl this year put it best when she said, “There are no unwanted children just unfound families.”

In this complex world of options, can you please add adoption of foster care children to the list? Spread awareness in your pro- life groups, and help to give a voice to the voiceless? The children hold out hope and they deserve a loving forever family and they need our help.

Dawn Rusinko, Family Life Advocate
Point Pleasant Family Life Center
732-295-5600

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Approved Placement!

Well, last week we left off talking about three brothers who are being blocked from a forever family. A front-line social worker spoke to one of our families and they decided to move forward to an adoptive placement. The family called us soooo excited! The worker was ecstatic. The boys are 14, 10, and 8 years old. The family is so happy.

Then the worker had to call and report that her supervisor has denied the placement and will not let the family adopt the kids. I repeat, the supervisor has denied the placement and will not let the family adopt the kids. We don’t know why and neither does the worker – and if she does, the reasons can only be … well, what are the clinical words for misguided and wrong?

Our report last week ended saying the worker was in the process of deciding whether or not she would go over the bosses head which of course can easily jeopardize her job.

We may not know all the details of the case- and we never will, under the best of circumstances- but we believe strongly that this family is healthy enough to withstand the onslaught of three angry children. It’s our professional judgment that the family has made a good decision. The family has prayed about it and believes before God that they can do it. They’re not taking it lightly, but they want those kids. We know for a fact that the kids need a family. THESE KIDS NEED A FAMILY! And, they have one.

There is not another family in the whole country who has stepped forward for these children. That’s a literal fact because that social worker has turned heaven and earth looking for a family for those kids. There is no one else available to them.

Our experience tells us that if they don’t get connected to someone very soon, they will almost certainly be split up and go through a number of additional foster care placements. One or two of them will end up in a group home with one of them probably graduating to a full-boat institution. They will be discharged from Foster Care at age 18 and their chances of adult homelessness, jail, substance abuse, and repeating the Foster Care cycle increase incredibly high. They are also at increased risk of premature death.

What reasons would you want for denying their placement with an experienced, committed and capable family who is excited to receive them?

Anyway, to change the subject, this is not the only case we have on our desk. Yesterday we had a telephone conference on a different waiting child. Another of our families has offered to adopt a young woman. She’s 15,and her public introduction reads as follows:

This fun and sassy young lady is looking for a forever family to love and support her.  M. is on the honor roll and enjoys athletics. She runs track and plays volleyball for her school teams. Making good grades is something that this responsible young lady is proud of. She is a skilled player of Mario and Donkey on the Wii and enjoys watching “Everybody Hates Chris on TV”.

This time there was forward movement all around because the placement was approved! Yaaaaay!!! . There were about eight people on the call, all of whom are involved in the case. (That’s less than half of the cast of characters who are assigned to this case.) We called our family and they’re also very excited and happy. So, progress can be made. We’ll leave you to ponder the complex emotions, not to mention logistics, involved in the adoption of a 15 year old girl. Can you imagine how scared she must be? Excited and scared at the same time. It’s a beautiful story.

Anyway, back to the case where the three boys are being denied an adoptive family. Earlier in this piece, we characterized the 3 siblings as angry. This is because no human being can withstand the neglect and abuse they’ve suffered and not be terribly hurt and angry. Actually, the anger is good to see because it’s a helpful response. Frequently, withdrawal and self-blame weaken us for the hard task of recovering from anger, of getting some equilibrium. Of course, the children can also be described as happy, go-lucky kids. They seem very resilient to the worker.

Our report last week ended with the worker being in the process of deciding whether or not she would go over the boss’s head, which of course can easily jeopardize her job.

Well she decided to do it! That’s dedication. Her boss’s boss gave her some guidance as to how to negotiate the system; how to set herself up for a win in the fight with her immediate supervisor. She’s risking her working conditions or maybe even her job for these kids. There is hope for the kids. This is social work. Stay tuned.

 By the way, what would you do?

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For the Children’s Sake

Last Friday we got a call from one of our experienced families who said that there was a real possibility of adopting three children from Texas. The mom had spoken for over 45 minutes with two social workers regarding three brothers, aged 8, 10, and 14. They have been in Foster Care for over four years and have been waiting for an adoptive home for two years. Pretty nice way to end a week!

On Tuesday we began working on some of the paperwork and the 200 (+/-) phone calls and conversations we’ll need to get the kids into this family. Joe called the worker and got confirmation that indeed she was also excited for ‘her children.’ Then we received a call from the Mom who was upset because one of the social workers she’d originally spoken to had voiced the fear that her supervisor would not permit the placement. Later that day,

On Wednesday, three of us spent over two hours with a IT specialist trying to get basic access to the NYS data system. We’ve spent the better part of a year trying to get the data entry privileges we need to generate some important documents. A confession- we did call the Governor’s office to get the Commissioner’s office to get the Deputy Commissioner for IT to get the senior supervisor to …. We’re in the system now. Yesss! Believe it or not this made us all happy!

On Thursday, we heard that in fact the supervisor had turned down the placement. The worker was told she had to find a different family for her children, after all the children are really the supervisor’s children. Well, we suggested that the kids don’t ‘belong’ to the supervisor either because Sup I has Sup II who has a Program Director who in turn has a Regional Director who has a Deputy Director who has an assistant Commissioner who has a Commissioner who has the Governor who has the legislature and the courts and the general voting public…

Gee, why do children manipulate that? No, kids NEED to have a mom and or dad are the Governor, courts, legislature all rolled up into one!

Anyway, back to the story. The social worker is currently trying to decide whether or not to jeopardize her job by going over her Supervisor’s head. We hope she does so - for the children’s sake. Stay tuned.

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Downey Side

Forty five years ago a single woman decided to retire from teaching after 30 years. She was approached by her parish priest to offer a room in her big house for a homeless young man coming out of foster care. He had no family and no where he could live. The young man had approached the priest to become a Brother but needed a high school diploma. The women consulted her family and friends and returned to the Parish Priest asking if she did take the young man in as a boarder would the priest be available if there was any problem. The priest agreed.  The young man was 17, and not only did she take him into her home she later on morally adopted him and he went on to be a Religious teaching Brother and Missionary in Guam.

In the Scriptures God as Creator of heaven and earth is described as the original and best of players.
When you and I are open to God’s Grace we begin to realize how significant and wanted we are as the people of God. It is up to each one of us to become creative and accept the special gifts that God has given to us and learn how we can share these gifts with one another.


Because of what this woman did an organization was created, and that organization is Downey Side.  Since that time over 6,000 homeless youth from foster care found families to adopt them.  All of this happened because Margaret Downey lived her entire life as a faithful Christian woman and she was open to the many material gifts God gave her realizing her Significance and being wanted.


Fr. Paul Engel,Ofm,Cap
Mission Director of Downey Side Inc.

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Annual FCS Race For Kids Fundraiser

I just got back from a three day fundraiser in Vermont. Called the Race for Kids, it’s run by the Financial Communications Society and is a tremendous help to us. Over the years, they’ve raised more than $500,000 for this mission and we are sooooo grateful. The event is a lot of fun- we even have a picture of  of me skiing in my Franciscan habit last year. I went cross country skiing this year; maybe I’m getting older and smarter -or more scared of going downhill really fast!

Anyway, our hat’s off to the FCS (http://fcsinteractive.com). They’re a great group of people and they really mean it when they say that philanthropy is a major goal of the organization. 

The group has a big heart because in addition to Downey Side, they donate to two other children’s charities and one evening of their three day event is devoted to the story that each mission has. In addition to our own Barber family, this year two young cancer survivors presented their stories. All the presentations were so incredibly powerful it’s beyond words. Very few of us escaped choking up at one moment or another during the evening. From three families there were young survivors of  amazingly difficult challenges- if you can even call homelessness and cancer challenges.

‘Our’ children, whose story I know better than the others, were homeless in the fullest sense of the word. They were found at two years of age, fending for themselves on the streets of a large American city. They’re identical twins and just as cute as can be. The government of that large American city reached out to protect them and  took them under it’s wing. This is great; absolutely great- as far as it goes. They needed to be protected from some obviously incompetent parents. But then we asked that government department to raise them.

The problem is of course, that  a governmental department can’t raise children- it doesn’t have a lap. It can’t give a hug or a kiss to a kid. Why am I explaining this to you? Of course I don’t have to. It’s not brain science- the government can’t raise children. But that’s what we’re expecting for 500,000 American children today. No wonder they grow up having to conquer unusually difficult internal and external challenges. The Barbers can raise children. The Smiths can raise children but the governments of  Texas, New Jersey, Chicago, etc. can’t. Period.

Please believe that not one of these 500,000 children have to be homeless. There are enough parents for every single one of them. Every single one of them.

For their privacy’s sake, I won’t go into details of how the Barber’s two children were treated in the two years they were in Foster Care even though I’d love to. If you call me, I can probably tell you some details but I’ll not write them on the web because it’s not my place.  

Of course, Newtown still is in our hearts and minds. It’s so hard to fathom. We’re torn between rejoicing with the families of the survivors and grieving with families of those who didn’t survive.

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Placing Kids

This weekend is busy!!!! One of our New York City families is hosting/visiting with a 12 year old boy from out of state. We’ll meet him, with his social worker (or at least one of them…), in the airport and drive them to the Bronx where he’ll spend the weekend. Tonight (Friday) they’ll have a nice dinner and then trim the tree. Tomorrow, who knows? This is the first time the youngster has been in NYC and is no doubt excited to see more things than is possible! (The worker, btw, has never flown and never been in NYC before. She is double excited, hah!) Her youngster is being adopted, and many people would say this boy was ‘unadoptable’.Well, this family turns that thought into a lie, and they’re so in love with him! He’s a claimed kid. We are extraordinarily honored to be part of this process.

The family is great and are really looking forward to their new son coming for good.

The other part of the busy weekend is that a family in upstate NY has received approval for the placement of a medically fragile baby. She was born with serious ‘oropharyngeal’ challenges  is being fed through feeding tubes in her stomach.  The placement will occur late this afternoon or on Monday- depending on some last minute paperwork. Though they live in a rural part of New York State this family has put together a dazzling array of services. This family is also super excited! They’ll do a fine job we know because the last child they adopted had to have an endotracheal intubation immediately after her birth and they did super with her.  The little girl is the bubbliest kid you’ve ever seen and reminds a lot of people of young Shirley Temple.

 

I wish we could show you pictures and tell you a little more about these children but we really can’t because of confidentiality. We’re working on the families to spend a little of their spare time (yeah, right) describing their experiences and share some pictures with us. We’ll get some from some of our other families and get them to you.

 

In the meantime, this is a good kind of busy!

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A Birthday??

I received my son, two months shy of his ninth birthday, while he was still in the foster care system. It was August and although, I was told he would only be with me temporarily, I knew temporarily could mean, longer than expected and I didn’t want him to miss out on any of his education, so I enrolled him in our public school. In order to enroll him, I needed his birth certificate, which I was able to obtain from his case worker, and discovered his birthday was soon approaching. I thought, if I invited his whole class over for a birthday party, it would help him meet new friends and he would feel more comfortable staying with us. In the preceding weeks of preparing, he often asked me the date of his birthday. I found this odd and wondered why, but let it go, until the day of his birthday and then it all made sense.

When the day arrived; I was overjoyed at the turnout of kids. One by one they brought presents and happy faces in anticipation of a fun time. As each child handed him a present I saw his face change to fear and wonderment at the same time. The more the kids laughed and played games the more he cried. He had a meltdown right there on the ground in the middle of the hubbub. Everyone stared not knowing what to do… I included. I carried him into the house and told everyone to continue having fun. When I got him alone, I asked him if he were alright and what was wrong. He told me nothing everything was fine. I thought to myself, FINE!! How can this be fine? Something is clearly wrong. Through his sobs and tears he finally confided in me, that he had never had a birthday party and didn’t even know when his actual birthday was, until I told him. Aha, this explained him repeatedly asking me the date.

You can imagine the shock and horror that I felt hearing this. Something as simple as a birthday party, I couldn’t believe it; however it did explain this melt down. I have had birthdays my entire life and so have everyone that I know. I took such festivities for granted and in my son’s case, they were a luxury he was not afforded. He opened my eyes to real poverty and a world I was not personally familiar with.

I let him cry and watch the party through the window, because that was what he wanted to do. Everyone had a great time and when they all left, he opened each present slowly and through soft tears. When all the gifts were opened, he just stared at them and didn’t play with any of them. Another awakening moment for me was that, I learned he didn’t know what to do with them. We spent days, teaching him how to put Lego’s together and play with some of the toys. This was a whole new and overwhelming world for him to adjust to.

That night, saying prayers before bed, he told me that this was the best birthday he ever had. I thought to myself, of course it was, it was the only birthday he had ever had (a truth I still have trouble wrapping myself around). I share this story with you, for two reasons (One,) because every day is a gift that some people struggle to keep, so we should never take it for granted, we are richer than we can ever imagine. (Two,) I was amazed to learn of how many beautiful children there are right here in America living in poverty. They move from house to house, school to school, not knowing where they will lay their heads down to rest at night and “If” it will be safe. They never give up hope for a forever family. Perhaps, you or someone you know, may want to be that family if not, please pray for them and for good families to come forward for them, for more information check out the links below.

http://www.downeyside.org/

http://www.state.nj.us/njfosteradopt/foster/

-Dawn Rusinko, Family Life Advocate
Downey Side Point Pleasant Family Life Center