Last night some of our staff members enjoyed a meal with Portland Public School families at the East End Community School. This was the final gathering in a 6-part series over the school year bringing together about 100 students and their families for a Family Engagement Night. “I think it’s magic what happens,” says Susan Wiggins, a Transition Specialist at Portland Public Schools Student Support Services and the primary organizer of the events. “This kind of sensory experience [of sharing a meal] transcends language. I feel so strongly about this that I was prepared to cook [the dinners] myself.” Luckily for Susan, Wayside and our volunteers happily stepped in to prepare the meals through our Collective Catering program, where we offer food free of charge for community building events that the partner group would otherwise not be able to provide on their own. Standard Baking Company also donated fresh bread to accompany each meal.

The program is part of a three-tiered community intervention approach from the Refugee Trauma and Resilience Center at Boston Children’s Hospital in which Spurwink’s Project ShifaME (Supporting the Health of Immigrant Families and Adolescents) holds the contract locally. The goal is to break down cultural and practical barriers that children who experience problems related to trauma and stress have and to embed mental health services into the school system, building effective and easily-accessible services. All the students in attendance at the family nights take part in a 12-week group curriculum during school hours at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, Fred P. Hall Elementary School, Howard C. Reiche Community School and East End Community School. The groups' sessions are co-facilitated by clinician volunteers and cultural brokers from the Portland Public School Multilingual & Multicultural Center. The facilitators, along with teachers, receive training and consultation from Spurwink to understand culture, trauma and how to best support the children’s success at school.

Benjamin Strick, Director of Adult Behavioral Health at Spurwink and consultant for the project told us that the meals are by far the most successful attempt at incorporating the family engagement component that he has seen. “Susan Wiggins has done an amazing job helping the district build relationships with families who have historically felt disconnected or even ostracized from their school communities. Sharing a meal together is a normalizing experience and allows families and school personnel to connect and enjoy each other’s company.” The success of the gatherings can be attributed to Susan’s vision of sharing a meal together, but is also in large part due to the support of the Portland Public School system. She tells us, “parent and family engagement is a large focus for our Superintendent and our district, particularly engaging families new to America, making them know they are welcome, valued and modeling how we seek to engage them in partnership to educate the whole student.” The meal not only brings people together, but makes families feel supported, accepted and encouraged. “Like so many other things, it all comes together with a piece of string and a paperclip, lots of good will and a commitment to serve those in [our community].” The program’s success means it will likely continue next year and Wayside looks forward to being involved to continue fighting hunger and strengthening our community.