LEE COUNTY HELPING FAMILIES INITIATIVE

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BY KENDYL HOLLINGSWORTH
KENDYLH@OPELIKAOBSERVER.COM

LEE COUNTY —

Students and families across the county will receive extra support year round thanks to a new program that aims to help students stay on the path to a bright future.

The Helping Families Initiative (HFI) began in Mobile County in 2003 and has since branched out to serve residents in 27 counties across Alabama, with the program pending in seven more, according to its website, www.hfialabama.com.

The purpose of HFI is to identify at-risk youth and provide prevention and intervention services to help them achieve academic success.

“We see HFI as an opportunity to assist our schools, and also as a way to intervene with those children on a path to the juvenile justice system,” said Lee County District Attorney Jessica Ventiere. “Our goal is to help students avoid the criminal justice system while fostering their overall well-being.”

Ventiere said Lee County began implementing HFI in 2021 with Director LeKeisha Presley and Assistant Director Amanda Amat coming onboard Dec. 1.

“We had to build our program from the ground up,” she added. “The first few months were spent developing the framework and building relationships with each of the school systems. We are continuing to grow and develop the program.”

HFI connects and encourages collaboration between the district attorney’s office, the county’s three school systems and several community partners.

The partnership means students and their families will have better access to resources such as academic and parenting support, mentoring, mental health care, job and life skills training, housing, clothing, food, utilities, child care and domestic violence help.

By addressing these concerns, HFI seeks to provide families with greater stability and decrease students’ risk of suspensions, dropouts, substance abuse and juvenile arrests.

According to Ventiere, there are more than 23,000 students attending 35 schools across Lee County’s three school districts. In Lee County HFI’s first two months, more than 100 student referrals had been submitted through schools, parents and other agencies, according to a press release from the district attorney’s office.

Once a family is referred to HFI, the organization reaches out to offer services. Each family is then paired with a case officer who helps to create an “individualized and comprehensive plan for success.” This includes identifying the family’s needs and securing help through community resources, according to the Lee County district attorney’s website.

The case officer will then continue to work with the family, offering support as they work toward their goals.

“Great strides have been made in less than six months,” Ventiere said. “I’m looking forward to seeing all this program will grow to be and all of the students and families that will be positively impacted by Lee County HFI.

“HFI will be working hard through the summer growing relationships with schools, partner agencies, students and families.”

Following its success as a school-community partnership in Mobile County, Alabama HFI saw its first outgrowths in 2007 in Montgomery and Alabama’s 19th Judicial Circuit, covering Autauga County, Chilton County, Elmore County and Tallassee City schools. It then became an incubator program of the University of Alabama’s Center for Community-Based Partnerships (CCBP) in 2014 before falling under the umbrella of Volunteers of America Southeast in 2016.

Now, HFI receives support from local funding sources and a direct appropriation from the Alabama Legislature, according to the program’s website.

For more information on HFI or to make a referral, visit www.leecountyda.org or call 334-737-3446.

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