Building Healthy Families
One Connection at a Time

Family Connections
Amy Smith and Lee Gray piloted Family Connections, a 12-week family education course, in Kalamazoo last year.

Lee Gray and Amy Smith know how to build relationships.

It’s a skill that has proven essential to the facilitation and growth of their family education program, Family Connections.

By creating an environment of trust and open dialogue, program co-directors Gray and Smith say they are quickly able to engage even the most reluctant of students.

“They come and they immediately think that it’s about to be a bunch of jargon,” Gray said. “And that’s not what they get.”

What they get is a personal, interactive, hands-on curriculum covering topics such as parenting styles, authority and obedience, love languages, values, punishment, co-parenting, safe sleep and more. Family Connections aims to provide families the tools to create healthy relationships and environments for their young children by addressing many of the risk factors of infant mortality.

“People come from all walks of life,” Gray said. “They have different problems, different attitudes about things, but we all come to one class and everybody laughs together. Everybody learns these things together.”

Gray and Smith piloted the program in Grand Rapids in the spring of 2017, and with funding from United Way BCKR, brought it to Kalamazoo in July 2017. Open Doors serves as the program’s fiduciary and offers space for classes to meet.

“United Way provided the resources for us to spread our vision,” Gray said. “We don’t believe that people would have had an opportunity to experience this program without that help.”

Participants are often referred to the 12-week program by Kalamazoo organizations like KPEP, Douglass Community Association, Child Protective Services and the Department of Health and Human Services. Anyone in the community, however, is welcome to enroll.

Each 12-week session consists of one 90-minute class per week, and Gray and Smith employ a variety of methods including personal interactions, incentive learning, meals and role play scenarios to engage families. They also make themselves available throughout the week for additional support through texts, phone calls and more. Classes are filled initially through referrals, and people are invited to bring others along.

“By Week 2, they’re bringing their significant others, cousins, sisters, brothers, mothers, grandmothers – everybody’s coming,” Smith said. “Our classes double, triple sometimes.”

Safe sleep is one of the hardest hit topics during the session. Smith said students get hands-on practice carrying out some of the techniques they learn, and are taught the numbers behind safe sleep education – the shocking rates of infant mortality in Michigan and regionally.

“Ignorance is generational,” Gray said. “If you don’t know, guess what you’re going to teach your children? That’s why we can’t just talk about safe sleep. That’s why the class is set up to learn how to use the information. We’ve got 12 classes, 18 hours. We get the most we can out of those hours.”

For information about enrollment, call 616-840-4480 or email lifecoursellc@gmail.com.

When you give to United Way, you’re helping families create healthy relationships and environments for their young children. Help us #ChangeTheStory.