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Helping families nurture each other

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Mary-Curtis Gramley, founder of the Family Nurturing Center.

Q: What led you to the Rogue Valley?

Mary-Curtis: My husband and I moved to Eugene in 1970 with four children and one on the way. We moved around quite a bit, but we always came back to Eugene. Eventually I completed a masters degree in counseling and psychology. At that point and I went into early childhood education. I came to Southern Oregon University in 1990 after completing my Ph.D. program at University of Oregon.

Q: What was your role at SOU?

Mary-Curtis: I began teaching at SOU in the teacher education program in early childhood. I found teaching at SOU to be very appealing, but also became interested in administration. I moved into roles of department chair and then associate dean. Steve Reno was the SOU president, and he was very supportive in providing leadership opportunities to me.

Q: What did you learn about early childhood development along the way?

Mary-Curtis: While in Eugene I took a job at the child care program the University of Oregon runs, and in the process realized how intriguing small children were. I have discovered that you can take young children out of the home for certain types of programs, but if there isn’t the focus on the family … and I have learned this lesson over and over and over, the children will likely not be able to sustain the growth.

I spent a year at Walker Elementary in Ashland as community family school coordinator in early 2000. I got to know teachers and children in kindergarten through third grade and continued to realize how some children struggled with primarily peer relationships, self-management and emotional regulation. It was really an intimate experience with families experiencing the depth of struggles that growing up, sad to say, I had not been very aware of.

I had a couple of families I couldn’t forget. One was a young woman whose early experiences were so sad and traumatic. She was using heroin at age 9, then meth, and had a baby at 15, another at 17 and another at 19. She had such a struggle. There was such a concerted effort to help her, but the impact of her early life experiences was not going away.

There was another family who really had motivated me and inspired me to start the Family Nurturing Center. The parents were really struggling with meth. The younger three children were 3, 5, and a 6-year-old they depended on for care. I watched how, over the years, they continued to wander through the kinds of neglect and … I do not think there was actual physical abuse, but there was such emotional and mental neglect, which can be more impactful on children than physical abuse, it can become toxic. The 5-year-old had lost her teeth due to poor nutrition. The 6-year-old was the parent at various times. The 3-year-old was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. The social service systems were really trying to help these parents but the needs were overwhelming.

Q: What was the origin of Family Nurturing Center?

Mary-Curtis: While I was working at the CASA program, Susan Harris expressed to me an interest in trying to do something about the prevention of child-abuse and neglect. I began working with Susan to figure out how we could get a model of the Relief Nursery, which is a statewide program that gets state support from the Legislature. This was in 2004.

In 2006 we opened the Family Nurturing Center. We opened first in what is now the Medford Food Co-op, in the back room. We began building a clientele. There were so many people who supported establishing the organization. Doug Mares at Division of Human Services was one notable example, a really fine man. The critical value of a focus on the early lives of children when there is the most rapid brain development cannot be overstated. That was kind of the beginning of the Relief Nursery. I remained at the Family Nurturing Center for about 10 years, until 2014.

Q: How has The Family Nurturing Center grown since then?

Mary-Curtis: It immediately started to grow in the number of children served. The nursery provides a therapeutic classroom, which is a small group of children with qualified staff who understand basic impacts of abuse and neglect. Now there is a very extensive move toward the implementation of trauma-informed care and understanding children who have experienced the kinds of early life relationships or lack thereof. Dr. Lee Murdoch has been on the board from almost the beginning. He and I have spent many an hour discussing how we could best show that the combination of a therapeutic classroom, regular home visits, and opportunities for group or individual parenting support works. I believe that the direct one-to-one with parents is one of the best ways to impact and help parents grow and learn.

We work very closely with the courts, Community Family Court, Child Welfare and case managers. Now the Family Nurturing Center has become the provider of some of the DHS programs, like In-home Safety and Reunification.

The Family Nurturing Center is supporting children and families in ways that no other early childhood program does, and that is primarily because of the focus on mental health, the size of the classrooms, the training of the teachers and the intense work with parents. Programs like Head Start and multiple early childhood programs are doing wonderful work and making so many contributions to the community, so I’m not in any way being pejorative about them.

Q: What do you think are the largest challenges for local families?

Mary-Curtis: Addiction. Drugs and alcohol, and now opioid addiction. Recovery is a long process and very, very difficult. Parents who have children are faced with multiple other challenges like housing and general poverty, mental health issues, and little family support. Social systems are doing wonderful work, but is it for a long-enough period of time, and are they the right kinds of interventions?

While I was at the Relief Nursery, I was troubled by the fact that we would work with a family, sometimes a year, sometimes up to three years, and the children would be doing very well. Many of the families continued to struggle with their recovery, but the children would either “age out” of the program or … because of a long waiting list, we would think, “Well, maybe this child is ready to move to another program.” So often we would discover that we should have continued to work with them.

Q: Those support systems could last until kids, hopefully, graduate from high school?

Mary-Curtis: I don’t know that we went that far, but they would last until there is a level of functionality and stability on the part of families. I mean, this is a highly vulnerable population that, you know, one little mishap like missing a required drug test or a treatment session, missing group or … I mean all of these things can push someone back into previous struggles even if they are at a place of resolve or at least much more stable.

I am not in any way wanting to imply that children whose parents struggle when the child is young are destined to highly negative outcomes, because they’re not. I’ve seen some absolutely astounding and encouraging situations in families. A family that I’ve gotten to know well has both of the parents, and they tell the story themselves, turned themselves in to DHS because of their addiction and living in their car. Their children were very young. Dad is now at RCC. Mom has a good job, and they’re really doing well. They’re parenting well.

Q: What dreams do you have for families in Southern Oregon?

Mary-Curtis: My dream for families is mental and emotional and physical health. I hope for warm and caring, compassionate relationships in families. Families were meant to be and support their children.

Q: How do you realize your dreams?

Mary-Curtis: Reaching a dream of healthy families who relate to one another with caring, compassion and warmth will require an understanding of the significant role that parents play. And a willingness on the part of the social and health care services to support parents in this role. Parenting, especially when families are struggling and unable to provide children the nurturance and care they need, is complex and challenging. Responses from community services must acknowledge this challenge, look at the family holistically and build collaborative systems that will support families in their uniqueness. Collaboration among agencies and a willingness to reach across disciplines is one of the hallmarks of an effective system.

Q: What is it about Southern Oregon that you love?

Mary-Curtis: Some of the physical aspects of Southern Oregon are beautiful. This region has some interesting ... "dichotomy" is the word I want. There’s Medford and then there’s Ashland and then there’s Jacksonville and then there is sort of a culture of ruralism. Living in that diversity is intriguing and rather delightful. There are really interesting people here. I’ve enjoyed them and appreciated them. I think there are a lot of soft hearts in the community. You find what you look for, what you need or what you want. It’s satisfying.

— Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

Mary-Curtis Gramley [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]