Each night on Long Island, more than 2,000 teenagers sleep rough, according to Family and Children’s Association estimates. They sleep in parks, in railroad warming sheds or bus terminals.
As a way of calling attention to the problem, FCA decided to ask supporters and volunteers to help create a quilt. Supporters and volunteers were each given eight-inch squares that they could decorate any way they chose. The result was nothing less than overwhelming.
Both FCA Chief Operating Officer Lisa Burch and the organization’s president and CEO, Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, conceded that the finished quilt was considerably larger than anyone had expected.
“We ended up with 1,700 squares,” Burch said. “At this point, it’s so big that we can’t take pictures of the entire thing, so we’re going to have [a drone] take a photo of it on Friday,” when the FCA will celebrate its 135th anniversary at the Mineola Baseball Association fields in Mineola.
The quilt is no larger than the issues FCA addresses, from teen pregnancy to children’s mental health to homelessness to elder care. The organization has locations throughout Nassau County, including the Wantagh-Seaford area, although Reynolds was reluctant to be too specific about exact locations, because “many of the [homeless] kids we’re trying to help have been sex-trafficked.”
The FCA was founded in 1884, and throughout its 135-year history it has addressed many of the same issues it deals with today: substance abuse, domestic violence, unwanted pregnancy, gang violence and homelessness.
“It’s easy to think that Nassau County doesn’t really have a homeless problem,” Reynolds said. “It’s not as visible here as it is in some other places.” For example, he added, “Homeless kids may couch-surf, sleep in cars or live in squats,” either alone or with other homeless youth.
Nassau’s high cost of living can play a role, sometimes breaking up families that simply can no longer find ways of staying together. In addition, “Some kids may be runaways, or it may be substance abuse or physical abuse,” Burch said. “Sometimes it’s gang violence or LGBTQ issues, where parents aren’t willing to have their [LGBTQ] kids in the house with them. Sometimes the kids are ‘throw-aways.’” The FCA may attempt mediation, or it may provide a limited range of short-term housing options. But, Reynolds said, “The shelter system isn’t really a good long-term option, even when it’s available.”
None of the issues the association deals with have short-term solutions, Reynolds cautioned, saying, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” And some of the organization’s programs are the result of trial and error, sometimes in the face of initial pushback from traditional agencies.
For example, the Sherpa program was developed in response to one particular aspect of the opioid crisis. People were showing up in emergency rooms,” Reynolds said, and, after detoxing, were being discharged. “In many cases, they’d end right back up in the ER,” he said. “The hospital staff weren’t equipped, or didn’t have time to do more than deal with them medically.”
The Sherpa program enlisted the aid of addicts in recovery to help such patients avoid relapse after being discharged. “We went from an 11 percent success rate with just hospital staff to 86 percent success with Sherpas,” Reynolds said of the program, which was pioneered at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bethpage.
He saw the key to success in the fact that the “sherpas” had lived through the same experiences as the ER patients, and were more “relatable.” But many sherpas had criminal records, which posed a problem for a program seeking funding from government contracts. And for many, substance abuse remains a law enforcement issue rather than a therapy issue, Reynolds said.
The FCA runs a number of outpatient programs as well, Burch said, at locations throughout the county. Their number is staggering. The organization employs some 300 people, she said, and has many more volunteers. But even with an annual budget of $21 million, balancing the books is often a challenge. Last year, FCA had “only” a $200,000 deficit, according to Reynolds, who has headed the organization for five and a half years. In the past, there have been much larger shortfalls. “We’ve been through some very, very tough years,” he said.
FCA’s primary sources of funding are government contracts and foundation grants and donations, and each comes with challenges. “Government contracts are often slow to pay,” Reynolds said, and do not always respond to rising costs. “We have a few programs where reimbursement hasn’t gone up in 20 years.” And private donations often have restricted use. Fundraising for general administrative costs — often one of the largest components of a program’s budget — is hardest of all.
“One donor asked me where I was having the hardest time finding money in one program,” Reynolds said. “I said I needed $10,000 to move files to the cloud but couldn’t afford the licenses. [The donor] immediately wrote me a check for the full amount.”
FCA’s 135th-anniversary celebration is scheduled for Friday, from 10 a.m. to noon, at the Mineola Baseball Association fields, at 130 Willis Ave. For more information, or to learn more about FCA’s programs and volunteer opportunities, go to www.fcali.org, send an email to Info@LICALI.org or call (516) 746-0350.