High Ground News has covered Agape Child and Families Services in the past, but our coverage has general focused on the organization, new program or resulting impacts. We strive to include the voices of residents and front-line staff, but they aren't often the primary focus of a story.
Related: "Apage embeds in Whitehaven to prevent youth from entering foster care"
Here we take a more intimate approach, with a one-on-one conversation with Paulita Edmondson. Edmondson, 29, is a family connector supervisor with Agape embedded in Hickory Hill.
Edmondson has been with Agape for just shy of three and a half years. As a connector, she served 15 to 25 families annually. As a supervisor, she oversees case management for 80 families in Hickory Hill.
Her work is a combination of Agape's two-generation model and its place-based strategy.
Agape, a faith-based nonprofit founded in 1970, worked initial to limit the number of children in group homes through home-based foster placements. They now believe kids are best served by their own families and communities, and the best way to keep kids out of foster care is to lift whole families. Their overarching goals is to reduce poverty among Agape families by 1% annually.
Agape's place-based strategy, Powerlines Community Network, is in its 11th year. Agape embeds connectors in apartment complexes in Frayser, Whitehaven and Hickory Hill and the schools that serve those complexes.
Connectors work with families at risk of losing a child to foster care and connect them to an individualized package of wrap-around services. They serve the child and adults living in the home, including parents, grandparents and extended family. Whatever the need, from counselors to job placement to utility assistance, the connectors help find a solution.
We sat down with Edmondson to learn about her daily experience as a connector and now supervisor, including what keeps her motivated and her hopes for the families and community she serves.
[Responses edited for length with minor edits for clarity.]
Can you describe your typical day or week?
As a family connector, the days vary depending on the needs of the families. You may spend countless hours helping them find housing, food banks, educational services, employment opportunities, legal assistance and other critical resources. You may also be advocating on a family’s behalf for any or all of those resources. I am a family connector supervisor, so I work closely with four family connectors to serve 80 families in Hickory Hill.
Prior to becoming a supervisor, I served as a stars connector* and a family connector, so I am also still available to meet with families when a connector is out or double booked.
[*Stars connectors are school-based, family connectors are apartment-based.]
Can you describe the families you work with?
One word to describe the families we serve is resilient. They thrive in a system that is set up for them to fail, and that resilience is admirable.
They are mostly single mothers with multiple children. I’ve worked with women who have one child and other women who have up to eleven children. These moms typically work part-time at minimum wage. Many working parents we serve bring in about $700 - $800/month.
Their children motivate them to keep going. Some people may say they don’t care about their kids because the family is living in poverty. What those people fail to recognize is that poverty is generational and that these families are doing the very best they know how as they try to survive.
When we introduce them to different skills and opportunities, they are brave enough to try and break the cycle of poverty. They have dreams for themselves and dreams for their children. They want to make enough money to send their kids to college. They want to own their own home, have a car, travel and see places outside of Memphis.
What’s something you're especially proud of or really shows the success of your work?
There was a woman who diligently worked the program and changed the course of her life. Her family was one of the first I served when I became a connector. We worked together to create a vision board that contained all of her aspirations. She worked it piece by piece and attained her dreams. Through our TeamWorks program, she got a certification and employment. She was previously paying rent based on a lower income. Now she pays her rent in full every month on time. Because of her work, her family is now fully self-sufficient.
What are the biggest challenges of your job?
The biggest challenge is accepting that there are more crises than there are resources. Once I accept that, I can focus on the main goal of my work, which is building relationships with those I serve. Then when a crisis occurs, we can walk through that with them, providing encouragement, support and faith.
I encourage each of our connectors to create a resource book when they first get hired to keep up with the many agencies and outlets we partner with to get our families what they need.
Everyone has hard days at work. On your hard days, what motivates you to keep going?
For me, it’s personal. I was raised by my aunt. My mom, my sister and I had to be in separate homes for a time because there was nowhere for us to go that could house the three of us. We lost our house. We went without power. At times, we didn’t have enough, but we never felt poor because people were there for us and they brought hope and faith into my life. Now, I want to be someone through whom people can see Jesus.
Can you say a little more about you?
I am from a small town called Halls, Tenn. Seven years ago was the first time I visited Memphis, when I came here for Youth Villages. Prior to Agape, I was a therapist at Youth Villages. When I first moved to Memphis, I lived in Hickory Hill for two years.
I received my undergraduate degree in child development and psychology from Middle Tennessee State University. I am currently working on my master’s in social work at Walden.
People say some negative things about Memphis. My thought is those things won’t change if people don’t stay and help change it. That’s why I love doing what I do right here in Memphis.
What are your hopes for the families you work with? For Hickory Hill?
I hope that there will be unity and that Hickory Hill will learn how to be a community again. My hope is that when one person in Hickory Hill has a success, that the whole community can rejoice with pride. Hickory Hill used to be a thriving place for families, businesses and schools. My dream is for it to be like that again – to bring prosperity back into this neighborhood.