The Milton Family Community Center is commemorating its 25th year of service this month.
Not until 1985 did Milton have its own place for families in need to receive services. If a single mother needed training to help her get a job, she had to go to Burlington, a trip that wasn’t easy without reliable transportation.
That was until Marge Wood, a now-retired mental health consultant, and a group of the Center’s early supporters decided to make Milton’s need for a “service hub” into a reality.
Wood worked with Annette Benning of the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, who received a request from the National Head Start Association to address local needs. Head Start works to provide education, health and other services to preschool children from low-income families.
The two collaborated with Lisa Horel, then a Head Start employee, who later became MFCC’s first executive director.
“What we needed was some kind of resource in town that would serve [families] so they wouldn’t be frustrated and not get the services,” Wood said.
So Wood wrote up the first grant proposal, including letters of support from Milton’s fire and police departments, the school district and the library. She presented to the Selectboard, which gave a small monetary contribution toward the effort.
Soon, the application was approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for $35,000. Current director Brett Chornyak still has the original grant award document in his office.
MFCC was soon christened one of the state’s first parent-child centers, led by a board of directors who represented a range of interests: business, banking, healthcare and daycare. Wanda Viau was named board president and served until her death in 2002.
Many of the Center’s first programs centered on childcare but soon expanded to serve parents, teens, infants and grandparents. As Wood put it, the Center served “from the cradle to the grave.”
“It became a family center, not just a child center,” she said.
MaryBeth Pinard-Brace’s family was one of the Center’s first success stories, she said.
In 1985, Pinard-Brace had recently become a single parent with two daughters, ages 1 and 4. Though she went to college, Pinard-Brace only had experience in retail and soon realized that “wasn’t going to cut it” to raise a family, she said.
Through MFCC, Pinard-Brace enrolled in Reach Up, a welfare-to-work program, and her oldest daughter joined Head Start. She met other single moms and their children, which gave her comfort since her closest family was 350 miles away.
“It really gave me a sense of family and a sense of community that I might not otherwise have had,” she said.
Through Reach Up, Pinard-Brace joined the Single Parents Opportunity Project, which helped her get a reliable vehicle and work-appropriate clothing. She also contacted the Vermont Department of Employment and Training and landed an internship.
“I was able to identify what I wanted to do for a career,” Pinard-Brace said. “I was lucky; I didn’t need to get extra training to be able to do what I wanted, but if I had needed that, they would have provided that.”
This on-the-job experience allowed Pinard-Brace to transition out of Reach Up into full-time employment in public relations. She’s been doing it for 25 years.
Today, Pinard-Brace works for the Parent Information Resource Center-Vermont, an organization that supports MFCC indirectly through contributions to the state’s parent-child center network.
Pinard-Brace has come full circle: from a mom who needed these services to a professional and a partner to the organization, she said.
“To feel a part of that legacy is really nice,” she said.
And even years after Pinard-Brace stopped receiving services, the Center’s staff kept in touch.
“It wasn’t just a job for them,” she said. “They really took an interest in my kids and me and really followed me long after they really needed to.”
Chornyak, the current director, said the staff is the core of the Center’s services.
“They’re here because they love their job, and they want to help people get to a better place in their lives,” he said. “This building could burn down and the staff – that’s what makes a center.”
That isn’t to say the jobs are easy. In a down economy, the Center struggles as all people do. The Center relies on grant funding (even for salaries) and tries to meet the same needs with less money.
“We’re always chasing money,” Chornyak said. “If we didn’t have to do that as much, we could be focusing on quality of programs and providing more services.”
Recently the Center had to cut its federally-funded supervised visitation program, one Chornyak called “very, very needed” in the entire county. The Center was flat-funded this year, while the cost of just about everything went up.
Still, Chornyak sees the Center as a hub that can quickly respond to people’s needs. He cited the newly formed military support group for families affected by the Afghanistan deployments.
The Center also relies on more than 100 volunteers a year to run its many programs. Wood, the original grant-writer, said this is the perfect time to ask for more local support while state and federal monies dry up.
“Everybody’s always busy, but if you tap into something they’re really interested in, they’ll find some time to volunteer,” Wood said.
In the Center’s next 25 years, Chornyak wants to see more volunteer programs, particularly with senior citizens and teens. His long-term wish is for the Center to expand beyond its location on Villemaire Lane, where room is tight and the building is hard to maintain.
But that’s a long while off. For now, Chornyak sees the Center fulfilling the same needs it has for the last 25 years: strengthening families like Pinard-Brace’s and meeting individuals’ needs.
“Our vision statement has changed, but that’s pretty much our goal,” he said. “It hasn’t wavered at all.”
The Milton Family Community Center will celebrate its 25-year anniversary with an open house on Saturday, Sept. 18 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Center on 23 Villemaire Lane.