Linda Alderman put on a brave smile as she greeted parents and children last Thursday morning, her final day at the Janet S. Munt Family Room in Burlington's Old North End. After the 54-year-old Milton resident had given each of them a long hug, the kids took off to play in the Big Room while the adults milled about, catching up with each other.
The Family Room provides free early childhood services, parenting education, and other support services in St. Joseph's School on Allen Street under the auspices of the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties. Alderman had worked there for 25 years when, three weeks ago, she learned that she and two other long-term support staffers would be losing their jobs.
For nine years, the Family Room has been funded by a federal New Pathways for Fathers and Families grant — to the tune of between $250,000 and $390,600 per year — and has grown from a $638,000 operation to one with a $1 million annual budget. Last month, however, the VNA learned that its grant renewal request had been turned down, surprising administrators who were confident that they would be successful. Parents arranged a speak-out and took to social media to express their shock and disappointment.
"The Family Room helped me and my daughter in a time where I felt like I had no one to help me understand parenting and co-parenting without judgment," Monica Forte wrote on a Family Room Facebook page that is now 500 members strong. Maggie Graham offered more practical advice: "I sent an email to email@example.com to state my support for VNA Family Room and implore the mayor to do what was in his power to keep the Family Room doors open. Maybe we could inundate him."
The Family Room is named for former state senator Janet Munt*, who created the parent-child center in 1987 when she was director of the VNA's maternal child-health division (now their family and children's services division). Although it originally catered to high-risk families, today the program serves a diverse population. About 500 families and 1,200 individuals visit each year — twice the number the center served just five years ago, program manager Samantha Stevens told the House Health Care Committee in 2014. Forty percent of the clientele hails from refugee communities.
Maryan Maalin goes to the Family Room every day. The Somali Bantu mother of five started visiting the center soon after she arrived in the U.S. from Kenya in 2006 — initially she worked at the center as an AmeriCorps volunteer. "You go there and meet people from around the world," she said. "Most of my friends are from the Family Room."
Her two youngest are there now, too. Last week, Maalin balanced her 6-month-old infant, Tasnim, on her hip, while her 3-year-old daughter, Asha, trailed after her. The free on-site childcare during Family Play on Tuesdays and Thursdays has allowed Maalin, who is a student at the Community College of Vermont, the rare opportunity to do her homework.
Dressed in a green fleece jacket, billowing cotton skirt and fluffy bedroom slippers, she stared intently at her laptop. In the adjoining Big Room, equipped with an indoor swing set and a sandbox, Asha climbed into Alderman's lap to read a book. The aroma of fried red and green peppers wafted from the kitchen into the Baby Room, where a staff member rocked Tasnim to sleep.
The lunch menu that day also included roasted Brussels sprouts and mac and cheese. For 14 years, Rosie Senna has planned and cooked meals for the people who come to the Family Room, some of whom have no other source of hot, nutritious food.
Like Alderman, Senna is losing her job at the Family Room — a place the 54-year-old Old North Ender sought services 24 years ago, when she had her own kids. She volunteered for 10 years before it turned into a paid position.
"This is my family, and I'm not going to just let it go," Senna said.
The Family Room's parent advisory council has criticized the VNA's decision to eliminate three of 10 positions at the center and reduce programming. The Dad's Program service will no longer include the parenting, employment and education programming that was supported by the federal grant. The Family Play program will be cut from two days to one.
"I reject the solution," said Meg Cline, a member of the council, after it met with VNA CEO Judy Peterson on October 27. She added: "It was framed to us as being unavoidable due to the loss of that grant."
The Family Room gets funding from state and federal grants, as well as from VNA fundraisers — including a contribution from United Way — and an endowment. In 2006, the Family Room received its first five-year federal grant from the Promoting Responsible Fatherhood demonstration program. The grant was renewed in 2011 but came to an end on September 30.
Last spring, VNA budgeted as if the half-million-dollar grant were going to continue, Peterson told Seven Days. Officials knew they'd have to make cuts if it wasn't. "In the meantime, we stepped up our efforts to try to find ways to bring in other money and have just not been successful," said Peterson.
The growing number of people who come to the center has driven up operating costs, but funding has not kept pace, noted Nicole Haley, assistant director of development and community relations at the VNA, which subsidizes the Family Room program with almost the same amount as the federal government contributes: nearly $500,000.
The VNA is struggling with its own funding problems, as reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid have plateaued and foundations are spreading out their resources, according to Haley, resulting in smaller, less reliable grants.
Though Peterson said she's 100 percent behind the Family Room's mission — to build strong families and support healthy children — "there was no way we could come up with several hundred thousand dollars to maintain the program," she said. Fundraisers cannot make up the funding shortfall, she said, but the nonprofit has reached out to community partners, policy makers and businesses for help.
But some still seemed surprised. "I was not aware that they had any concern about their funding," said Pam McCarthy, CEO of the social services organization Vermont Family Network. "Had we pulled together as a community, maybe we wouldn't go through this now," McCarthy said, adding, "We're looking at the possibility of supporting that one Family Day that they're having to cut, with some other resources that we have."
Asked why the VNA didn't send out a distress signal sooner, Ellen Kane, the organization's vice president of development and community relations, said there was "a concern about alarming people" regarding the Family Room's financial situation. She did acknowledge, however, that the VNA could have done a better job of communicating with parents.
Last Thursday, the Family Room staff, parents and volunteers organized an appreciation lunch for the three departing staff members and gave them scrapbooks full of photos and thank-you notes. Afterward, the advisory council held a speak-out during which parents described how they'd been helped.
Denise Foote, 41, didn't take the microphone, but she detailed to a reporter all the ways in which the Family Room assisted when her kids were young "through finding houses, finding jobs, postpartum depression, legal issues with the school district. All the things your family would be for, if your family were close."
"I feel at a time when my life was the hardest, I was the most vulnerable, Rose, Linda and Glenn were there to be my support system," she continued. "And I don't want anyone to miss out on that."
Kane acknowledged, "In retrospect, I think we could have, when we look at how the community is rising up, harnessed and engaged the community more." She said she was hopeful the current situation would get the attention of legislators. "We really believe we ... can prevent other things, such as substance abuse later in life ... if we do intervene early on with these children and families," Kane said. "The only thing is, no one is funding it."
Some parents have suggested that the Family Room become a stand-alone entity or partner with a different organization. The VNA would not "resist that exercise," Peterson said, because its ultimate goal is to see that the services continue. She added, "If it would work better with them being a separate charitable organization with their own board of directors that's totally dedicated to fundraising for them, we would support that. But we in no way want anybody to feel like the VNA is pushing them out at all, because we created this program."
At the very least, she believes the Family Room should become a certified childcare center and get paid for the services it provides. In the meantime, Alderman and Senna are out looking for jobs.
Both promised to come back and visit, but that didn't reassure one of the preschoolers who hugged Alderman last Thursday morning — and refused to release her arms. Only with great reluctance did the little girl finally let go.
Correction 11/12/15: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Janet Munt as a "late" state senator, not a "former" state senator. In fact, she is alive. We regret the error.
Correction 11/12/15: An earlier version of this article reported that the VNA's maternal child-health division was defunct. The services that division provided are now covered in the VNA's family and children's services division.
Correction 11/13/15: This article has been updated to reflect the Family Room's founding in 1987, not 1988.