Like most big families, Families Forward Learning Center members almost always end up gathering in the same spot: the kitchen, of course.
It’s the heart of the home, where breakfasts and lunches are shared and the conversation flows. For young parents living far from any family and struggling financially, it’s where a cup of coffee also offers a reprieve from the pressures of raising young children.
“This is just where everyone comes through, between classes or before or after,” said Berit Anderson, development associate of Families Forward Learning Center, giving a recent tour of the center’s gleaming kitchen and colorful facility. “It really is the heart of our center. I’m sure you can tell today is fish stick day!”
Families Forward Learning Center — formerly called the Mothers’ Club — serves families in the northwest Pasadena community that have the highest needs, often due to high levels of poverty and low education. Of the center’s members, 62% of families are considered to be among the living poor, with 28% of families living in households with multiple families due to economic hardship. Another 47% of parents have less than a 9th-grade education, and 47% of adults over 25 cannot read a bus schedule.
Here, the nonprofit promotes a two-generation learning process, giving both parents and children educative courses that result in positive outcomes for both generations. For children 3 months to 5 years old, the center offers top tier early childhood education, programs that have shown to increase the likelihood of a child’s success in elementary school and throughout the rest of their schooling career. For families of low-income, those programs are largely out of reach.
Families Forward in Pasadena is the only agency offering a dual generation approach to at-risk children and their parents. The early childhood education requires active parent participation and consistently ranks among the top programs in the region. This year, the center offers preschool programs to 116 children, with more than another 100 on the waiting list.
“In terms of services, there just aren’t enough in early education programs, neither locally nor nationally,” said Hector LaFarga, Families Forward Learning Center executive director, noting that currently the center is at capacity for its preschool.
But LaFarga is confident the center can reach more people.
“We want to continue to empower low-income families, we want to increase our impact in the community and maximize the use of our facility to offer weekend and evening programming,” LaFarga said.
Families Forward changed its name from the Mothers’ Club to focus more on the impact to the community and entire families, including fathers and grandparents.
The services for parents include English learning, parenting education, mental health support, family literacy, computer training, and health and wellness education. It also considers itself a conduit for any kind of community information.
Mother of two, Cristian Plascencia said the center has changed her life. When she first arrived to the U.S. with her young daughter, she had no family to help with childcare, no transportation, didn’t speak English and was terrified of the city she didn’t know or understand.
Now, with classes and support from the center, Plascencia was able to get her driver’s license and is studying early education herself, in hopes of becoming a preschool teacher. She also has a part-time job.
“Now I’m an Uber driver,” Plascencia said proudly, recalling how the center cared for her children so she could find the time to study English and ultimately take the exam. “There were all these things I thought I could never do … never learn English, never drive in Los Angeles, never have children in school. And now, I’m doing it all.”
Families Forward addresses many of the barriers to adult education, which include language and cultural barriers. The many different immigrants in northwest Pasadena need programs that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for families caught between two cultures. Another barrier is transportation, since many families are without cars or access to public transportation. That’s why, with its location in the heart of northwest Pasadena, the center is convenient for participants to walk to.
The most significant barrier for parents is childcare. They have no one to care for their young children while they attend classes.
Mabel Guevara, who also lives far from any parents and siblings, said she has made a new family through the center.
“It was so hard when I first came here. I felt so lost; lost in the sense I didn’t know the city and I didn’t know the language and I was very lonely. But now I have my other family here,” said Guevara, who with the help of the center, is studying to take her American citizenship exam.
The parenting classes have been life changing, as well, she said, for both her and her husband, helping them learn their children’s strengths and interests.
The parenting classes also are essential to some members who did not have a traditional upbringing, or were brought up without parents.
“My parents died when I was very young, and my sister raised me as best she could,” said Maria Guadalupe Vargas. “But she always worked, and I always worked when I was young, and I didn’t know a lot of the things you’re supposed to do with your children.”
Vargas took courses for years at the center, and had three sons who went through the program while she studied. Now, she is the head nutrition coordinator at the center.
“Here, I learned [to care for] my boys, to take them to the library a lot, read to them a lot. I learned to volunteer in their schools and classrooms. Now, they are grown but they still love going to the library,” said Vargas, laughing that now she is “learning to let go … but I’m still learning.”
The educators at the center, largely through a collaboration of teachers with Pasadena Community College, focus on trying to help parents learn coping skills to deal with economic hardships, immigration stresses and of course, patient parenting. Through many community collaborations and pro-bono volunteers, the center provides counselling, legal advice and information to help navigate the immigration system, even for those who might have a family member detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The end goal is for Families Forward to provide skills and meet the challenges of the families,” said Silvana Casaligno, who recently retired after 22 years as program director at the center but still teaches parenting classes there through PCC.
“We cannot fix their immigration status, we cannot fix the DACA situation … all we can do is say ‘This is family, this is what you have today and we need to educate both.’ If they do have to return to their country, they will have two languages, and they will have skills on how to access resources,” she said. “For many, their lives are so tentative. We are providing them with skills to emotionally stabilize themselves and care for their children.”
California state government contracts make up about 40% of the Families Forward funding, while another 40% is provided by the Pasadena Community Foundation, and the remaining 20% is earned through fundraising.
But going forward, in order for the center’s vision to help more people in northwest Pasadena, they will need to raise more money, LaFarga noted. He hopes to increase the adult learning education classes in the evenings and on weekends, providing more opportunities for working parents. One of the new programs is Teen Parents, a 10-week course for young parents in Learning Works, a Pasadena Charter school for disenfranchised youth working toward their GED.
“With more collaborations we can launch several new programs in 2018 and offer more support services to the community at large,” LaFarga said.
To that end, Families Forward would love to see more volunteers from the community, especially for its Early Readers Book program, he noted. The community is also invited to attend the center’s Twilight Tasting benefit on Oct. 14, a fun evening with unlimited food and drink from local restaurants and live music. For more information or tickets, call (626) 792-2687, ext. 112.