Nurturing Resilience and Self-Care: First Call Empowers Children Impacted by Substance Abuse

Initially established in 1958 as the National Council on Alcoholism, First Call Drug Prevention and Recovery (First Call) boasts a vibrant history of delivering essential aid to individuals and families affected by substance use disorders. Through the years, the organization’s bedrock services – including the around-the-clock crisis call line and information hub – remain unwavering. First Call now offers an array of services spanning prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery support. In fact, as Emily Hage, President and CEO of First Call explained, the organization is unprecedented in expertise and resources for substance abuse prevention and overdose treatment within the Kansas City metro area. Ms. Hage went on to share more about First Call’s Family Services programs, which have pioneered unique curriculum-based support for adults and children impacted by substance abuse or addiction of their family members. While the adult program, “How to Cope,” began in the 1970s, First Call recognized a need and launched a similar curriculum aimed at children and youth in the 1990s. Their particular dedication to the latter finds resonance and a shared vision with the Children’s Services Fund.

“Children Services Fund has been one of our funding partners since its inception,” explained Ms. Hage. “Since we’ve been providing services to this specific demographic for decades, we are wholeheartedly supportive and pleased to witness the establishment of a dedicated resource for the betterment of our young people in Jackson County.” Through their partnership with the CSF, First Call has grown and driven outreach around two vital programs that support Jackson County children impacted by substance use and alcoholism: “Caring for Kids” and “How to Care.” As such, First Call’s programs align with two of the focused service areas the CSF funds: Prevention and Outpatient Substance Use Treatment. 

Control And Care: First Call Teaches Kids How To Cope

“Caring for Kids” is a companion program to the adult program, “How to Cope.” It serves as an educational support group tailored to children who have been impacted by a family member’s substance use disorder or other mental health challenges. Megan Keller, Family Services Team Lead, has been working with children in this field for 23 years. She shared how the curriculum begins by explaining the concept of substance use disorders and emphasizing that they are diseases. Wrapping learning around “Five C’s,” First Call Family Services instructors and staff focus on helping the children understand that they did not cause the disorder, they can’t control or cure it, but the way they can cope is through self-care. 

“We really want to drive home what they can and cannot control in their lives and empower them to focus on the one person they can control, which is themselves,” emphasized Ms Keller. “The remaining portions of the seven-week curriculum focus on teaching the children how to take care of themselves, building self-esteem, and helping them build their lists of coping skills, safe places, and safe adults. We want them to leave knowing that they can have healthy lives and can move forward, regardless of what’s happening with the family member with the substance use or mental health disorder.”

Hope and Healing: Unveiling the Hidden Impact of First Call’s Programs

Ms. Keller explained how the impact of the “Caring for Kids” program runs deep, but is often imperceptible at first. “The environment we usually work in isn’t entirely therapeutic,” she explained, referring to the classroom or day camp settings of the program. “At times, the children most profoundly affected by parental substance use also grapple with a range of other biopsychosocial repercussions which cause them to manifest behaviors that make it difficult for them to engage in the classes and activities.” Nevertheless, she and the entire Family Services staff are frequently heartened by the feedback, grateful goodbyes, and even notes they received from participants after the conclusion of the program. One such incident occurred just a few weeks ago during one of the day camp sessions of “Caring for Kids.” 

At this particular session, the Family Services staff encountered a young boy who has struggled to engage in group settings due to his challenging behaviors. The child was raised by his grandmother and hadn’t had any contact with his parents, presumably due to their struggles with substance use. The Family Services staff deliberated extensively on how to provide support for this child, considering that a group setting might not be the most suitable approach for him or the other participants; they never quite felt like they were successful. However, after the camp concluded, they received a grateful email from the boy’s grandmother.

The boy’s grandmother shared how, despite the difficulties at the camp, the child returned home happy and she could tell it did him good. She detailed how he carefully washed the tie-dye shirt he made at camp that day, and carefully hung it to dry. That night at bedtime prayers, the child confided to her that talking about feelings at camp was hard but that he now felt better, lighter. He was able to listen when she explained that while his parents were not able to be good parents now, there is hope for reconnecting in the future and that what they could do is pray for his parents to be stronger and more responsible. And they did.

The grandmother’s email resonated with Ms. Keller and the Family Services staff. It emphasized how the essence of their mission was indeed successful despite the difficult circumstances surrounding the child at camp: he had returned home able to distinguish between his parents as humans, and the disease that afflicted them — to the point that he was able to pray for them. 

Equipping Adults: Bridging Understanding Through the “How to Care” Program

The second program that’s been funded, indeed been driven forward by funding from the CSF, is the “How to Care” program. First Call created “How to Care”  to address a recognized gap in understanding among adults who work with children facing traumatic experiences or the effects of substance use within their families. Many types of caregivers, including adoptive parents, teachers, and even school nurses and security officers don’t understand or know how to respond to the behaviors of children who endure such difficult home contexts. “How to Care” equips these adults so that they can respond in ways that are productive and helpful to such children. 

Ms. Hage emphasized that the CSF made it possible for First Call to implement delivery of “How to Care,” which was especially critical since the setbacks created by the Covid-19 pandemic.  “We created this program about four years ago, but the CSF’s funding was the first time we had dedicated funds to do the outreach and get “How to Care” in front of people.” She reiterated how the CSF makes it possible to offer both programs for free, and even boosted the sustainability of the “Caring for Kids” program by allowing them to add a critically needed staff member to Family Services. 

Caring For Jackson County Kids: A Shared Vision, A Compassionate Partnership

Both Ms. Hage and Ms. Keller shared at length how the CSF’s support for First Call went well beyond funding. “The CSF plays a vital role as a convener,” shared Ms. Hage. “ There are several natural partnerships amongst organizations that serve children in Jackson County, but the CSF takes an active role in bringing us together and plays a central role in facilitating these partnerships. Coming after the pandemic, there’s so much power in being brought together like that.” Ms. Hage concluded by sharing her gratitude for CSF’s well-informed understanding of the genuine dynamics of the nonprofit sector. “The funding landscape is always changing, you can lose a vital contact here or there, and there’s always so much that we’re responding to. In the midst of all this, the CSF brings so much compassion, true caring, and of course, great expertise. [They’re] dedicated to being a true champion of agencies that they partner with, and truly seem to be part of our team.”

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