It was over lunch in 1978 that five professional women, frustrated at bureaucratic inertia, decided to form a groundbreaking organization to help children with disabilities and their families in Monmouth County. Thus was born Family Resource Associates (FRA) - - and thus the lives of local children with disabilities and their families were dramatically changed for the better.
FRA's beginnings came out of the disturbing fact that while infant intervention programs were available for over five years, for children birth to three years old with disabilities, once the child turned three years old there were no other resources for them or for their beleaguered families to turn to. They were simply cut loose to make it on their own as best they could, since there were no preschool programs, recreation programs or family support services as we have today.
Having tried and failed to have the then existing infant program at which we worked, expand services to older children, we decided to start FRA. Although we knew the road ahead would be long and difficult, a firm belief in the correctness of this course spurred us on. We had lots of determination and a strong belief in what we had to do, and were stimulated by each other's intellect, creativity and enthusiasm.
By the summer of 1979, Family Resource Associates was launched on a meager start-up budget of $5,000. Located initially in the old Asbury Park YMCA, FRA offered services both there and in the home - - a radical concept at the time. There was no group like us then and we were very unique and very innovative in our approach. As a new provider, FRA was ignored by most county and state funding sources, and so we had to be extremely frugal with our limited resources. Furthermore, our policies of including parents on the Board of Trustees as well as using parents/consumers as the main evaluators of our services drew fire from other professionals in the field who believed it couldn't be done that way. Using parents and consumers to guide program development and evaluate effectiveness was considered unprofessional.
But FRA repeatedly proved the experts wrong. Today, much of what we pioneered is standard in the field. We were the first provider to cross ages and types of disabilities. While other agencies concentrated on a certain age and type of disability, FRA focused on children from birth through age eight without regard to their diagnosis. We were wild with ideas our first year! We had made a commitment to be responsive to the needs of the children and their families and we were determined to keep that commitment. Although it stretched our limited resources, we offered a variety of pioneering programs specifically for children (3 - 8 years old) with disabilities and their families in our first year, including:
the first educational, therapeutic summer program for preschoolers
the first tutoring and developmental education services
the first lending library of toys, physical equipment and books
the first dance class for disabled youngsters in New Jersey
the first respite care and babysitter training program for children with disabilities program in New Jersey
the first weekly recreation programs for children with severe and multiple disabilities
ongoing family support and sibling programs
FRA has continued to add programs and services as the needs grow. Slowly, as word spread of our unique approach and broad range of services, others in the disabled community began taking a second look at what our determined group and dedicated staff were doing in Monmouth County. In 1988, FRA was awarded a unique honor when we were selected, above numerous other and larger institutions, by the National Alliance for Technology Access to establish the first technology center in New Jersey that would be available to the entire community. The result was FRA's TECHConnection, another light-year leap ahead for the disabled and their families - - offering an active, non-commercial center where people could come, explore and try out the latest and greatest technological devices as well as gain valuable resources and training.
We have always remained responsive to the needs of the children and families. Sometimes these programs have really stretched us and we must reevaluate our ability to provide the program. Other community providers eventually took on some programs we initiated. However, other times we remained the best provider or the only option for families. FRA never knows where the next demand on their finances will come from.
An example of this occurred in 1999, when the largest infant program in the county suddenly closed due to bankruptcy, without notice to the staff or the families. On a moment's notice, we were urgently requested to expand our services to help these families. Within three weeks we had done so, jumping from a 55-child program to a 115-child program. Today this is a thriving, quality program. But situations like this put a severe strain on our budget.
Many of our programs have waiting lists, and the staff continues to address the needs of the disabled community with quality, caring, and innovative solutions. We have over 40 part-time and full-time professionals who provide the services. Ideas still pour out at FRA faster than the money comes in, and although more than 93% of every dollar is dedicated to programs and direct services, cash flow and financial growth remains a challenge as it does for all non-profit organizations.
But money woes aside, FRA continues to serve the needs of local disabled kids and their families. Although it has been over twenty-five years since FRA was formed over an informal lunch, our dream and desire to make a difference in this world still remains strong. Today, we are very busy and continue with many weekly programs. Our infant intervention program provides 180 home visits each week. There are also movement, music and developmental groups for young children. Saturdays offer our dance program for 3-25 year olds and various tech clubs. Throughout the week are many family and sibling support programs, as well as teen and young adult support groups. General and computer summer learning programs are offered. Many educational workshops and training programs for parents and professionals are presented. And we put out four newsletters quarterly.
Our current technology programs include: individualized technology evaluations for computer use and adapted devices; learning sessions for disabled infants and young children, (individually and in groups); prevocational and keyboarding clubs for teens; Kids Helping Kids (non-disAbled peer program); and training workshops. We also provide schools with resources, support and training on aspects of adapted technology use in the classroom. And, the TECHConnection offers a large lending library; and, we refurbish and give used computers to those with disAbilities who have limited income.
Today, FRA has come full circle. Once a loner among service providers to those with disabilities, today our methods and philosophy are widely imitated. We are a well established and stable program ready to offer more services to the community. With your support the future of our program looks bright!
YES, there is still more to be done! Some of our plans for the future include developing new after-school programs for children with autism; expanding our programs for siblings; increasing our programs in the TECHConnection specifically for teens with reading and writing disabilities; and finding solutions and alternatives for socializing, housing and employment for our young adults. The families have additional requests; yet the current state of the economy lessens their ability to obtain the services they need for their children and themselves.
We are undaunted by the limitations around us, and feel compelled to make the efforts necessary to gain support to continue our important work. We know we have made a difference in the lives of the many children and families we have been privileged to work with over the years.
We know others in the community are also dedicated to this cause!
FRA is a source of help, hope and guidance.
We are committed to enriching the lives of disabled people and their families...today and tomorrow.