More than 26 years ago, a Fairfax County social services employee named Carmen Fernandez got frustrated. She saw needs. She saw neglected children. She felt the agony of abused children. She met good people who needed help learning how to be a parent. She saw the painful results of people making mistakes because they just had not been taught about other ways to do things. And to those families she visited as part of her work, she kept repeating the same message: “I have your name on a list, but there are just not enough support services available.”
Amid this dire need for parenting classes Fernandez developed an evening program to strengthen families. She based the new series of classes in Bailey’s Crossroads, and when she retired from her social services position she did not retire from her efforts. She continued to write grants and create new opportunities for low income, diverse populations, and she expanded those efforts further by developing a program called HACAN, Hispanics Against Child Abuse and Neglect.
Because of HACAN, people are learning the practical things they need to know as they enter the wonderful world of someone calling them Mom or Dad.
Because of the HACAN program called Students Training in Advocacy and Responsibility, an immigrant high school student who wants to go to college has someplace to get the guidance she needs to earn a college degree that will turn her life around.
Because of the HACAN program known as Morningstar, a fifth grader about to enter the sea of middle school doesn’t have to enter those waters in isolation. He’ll instead learn how to make positive connections to his community and learn that there are role models who will make his life better. Within Morningstar he’ll find a core group of friends, adult contacts and opportunities that support his aims and goals. He’ll learn there are options, and that he can make better choices regarding academics and social behavior.
Now, Morningstar has come to the parks thanks to some of those role models and adults who are opening the way to those better choices. Grants from the Rotary Club of Bailey’s Crossroads and the Park Foundation are funding a 12-month program that started last September, which provides students with a chance to be part of recreation and exercise at county parks.
The fourth, fifth and sixth-grade Morningstar students usually meet on Saturday mornings at Woodrow Wilson Community Library. Through the new program, some of those meetings take place in parks. The hope was that park field trips would boost Morningstar’s weekly attendance from 15 to 25, and with the support of Bailey’s Elementary School, that goal was met and has been maintained.
That fifth-grade girl about to enter the larger word of middle school now has more opportunities and more choices of value. So far she’s tagged and released Monarch butterflies. She’s played games that Eastern Woodland American Indians played in the 1600s. She’s created pottery, and with four dozen other students she learned air-dry clay bead making. She’s been to Hidden Oaks Nature Center to get close to reptiles and amphibians, and she’s challenged herself in a Zumbatomic class at Providence RECenter. That sixth-grade boy about to choose the friends he’ll bond with through high school will soon be swimming at Cub Run RECenter, playing miniature golf at Jefferson District Park, visiting Burke Lake’s flying disc golf course and train ride, and stomping through Frying Pan Farm Park to milk a cow, meet baby animals and bounce on a hayride.
Through HACAN, families are getting stronger, and youngsters are seeing how much their community and their world has to offer them. And Carmen Fernandez feels rewarded instead of frustrated.
Written by Suzanne Holland, assistant manager, Hidden Oaks Nature Center