By Jennika Baines
Sun Assoc. Editor

Nobody ever said being a parent was easy. But a program offered through Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton looks to help parents steer their children in the right direction.

FAST, which stands for “Families and Schools Together,” is an international preventive afterschool program which Lourdes Hospital has participated in since 1997. “The goal of the program is to promote a positive connection between families and the school,” said Cindy Lord, family support program specialist for Lourdes Youth Services. She has coordinated the program for the past three years.

The 10-week program is available for eight to 10 families who meet weekly in a school district that is determined by Lourdes. The program helps parents focus on one child who might be having a tough time and might need a little extra attention.

Diane Varga-Fisher from Endicott was a newly-single mother who had relocated to the area from Pennsylvania with her two young boys. Her oldest son, a sixth grader, was having problems in school and she was having trouble communicating with him.

A counselor at school recommended that she and her son enroll in the FAST program. “I was just a crazy, running-around and single mom trying to do what I could for my kids and oh, jeez, here’s one more thing,” Varga-Fisher said. “But it was a wonderful program. I can’t tell you how much my kids loved this program.”

The boys loved the program so much that Varga-Fisher enrolled a second time. She said other families did the same thing. “After the last night my younger son actually sat in the backseat and cried all the way home,” she said.

The coordinators of the program know that this weekly commitment to the program can put an added stress on families and have thought up a few ways to alleviate that stress. Families for whom transportation may be a difficulty are provided with cab rides or gas cards. Childcare for siblings is provided in another room.

The families even have dinner together before the program starts to take one more worry off the list.

Lord said the program focuses on the parents. “They’re the experts on their own kids,” she said. “It not only empowers the parents, but it also allows the children to see the parents being given that respect,” Lord said.

After the families eat dinner together, siblings go off to childcare to play together while the parents and children participating in the FAST program take part in a series of discussion-based sessions. The parents come together to discuss topics that are of interest to them while the children come together to discuss issues that relate to school, family or peer pressure.

“We work for an hour on topics the kids would like to talk to their parents about, and then we move into other topics, like self-esteem, friendship, we might do trust, we always talk about alcohol and drugs, healthy relationships, Internet safety, and we’ve done programs on grief,” Lord said.

Parents are told what the children will be talking about, and while it’s an option to discuss that as well, they can also bring up a problem or concern of their own.

Speakers are also invited to talk to parents about special topics, and the parents can request a speaker to consider a topic of their choosing.

At the evening’s conclusion, the parents have an opportunity to spend some time alone with their child going over what was discussed that night. Facilitators are available to help whenever needed.

Varga-Fisher said the facilitators came in handy one night when she and her son fell into one of their old familiar arguments. “I have one real hot topic: chores. I got so angry at him that I stood up to walk out. I just have to walk away sometimes,” she said. But two counselors came over and helped Varga-Fisher and her son talk the problem through. “They really coached the both of us how to talk to each other without getting upset,” she said. “They teach you how to listen to each other.”

After this, there’s time for the families to play games together before heading home. Vaga-Fisher said dinner began at 6 p.m. and she and the boys were headed home by 8:30 p.m.

“You really start to enjoy it and  you look forward to your Tuesday,” she said. “By the end of eight weeks you were wishing it was longer.”

She said the experience helps her make connections with other parents, and her son has made friends as well. “The kids in junior high, they’re in such a mean age,” Varga-Fisher said. “A lot of kids are really going through some horrible stuff right now. But the FAST group, they stick together and they don’t discuss what goes on with the other kids at school.”

The relationships are so helpful and meaningful, in fact, that FAST incorporates another program, called FASTWORKS, that helps the families meet once a month even after the initial eight-week program ends.

For more information on the FAST and FASTWORKS programs, contact Lord at (607) 584-4532.

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