Family Pathways: 20 years of 'a perfect partnership'

In the mid-1990s, roughly 800 of the 4,000 students at Angelina College in Lufkin, Texas, were single parents. Many of them had come back to school to improve themselves so they could better provide for their families. 

College administrators and Buckner leaders identified three roadblocks to their success: Transportation, child care and confidence. In other words, these parents and families needed a path they could follow to succeed, a route that would help them overcome any obstacles they’d face.

That avenue became Buckner Family Pathways, and this year the program celebrates the thousands of lives it has changed across Texas and multitudes of families strengthened in 20 years since the launch of its first location in Lufkin, Texas.

“I think from the inception it was a perfect partnership: A community college, which is supposed to do things like this for their community, and an international organization with the reputation and the success rate of Buckner, just a perfect partnership coming together, and the community embraced it from the beginning,” said Larry Phillips, former president of Angelina College.

Phillips knew the Family Pathways program would work before the first location opened. He was observing the construction of the facility on the Angelina College campus when Linda Smelley, the first director of the program, introduced him to a single mother and her children who were going to live there in a few months.

The family had been living at a local women’s shelter safe house. Even though the bus dropped her elementary-school-age son off a couple of blocks away from the safe house, word had spread around school that the boy didn’t have a home, and he was teased.

The mother asked her son if he’d like living at what was then called Buckner Family Place. His reply was as clear as the program’s future: “Oh yeah, they won’t make fun of us now.”

“The story of Jake* stayed with me, so even before we opened, I saw that it was going to make a multigenerational impact on kids,” Phillips said. Single mothers quickly sought out the Lufkin program as a way to achieve their educational goals. As a result, the program has grown significantly. The first facilities consisted of 20 apartments. Now the

Lufkin location has 40 apartments.
“It was really going to be a small pilot program,” said Randy Daniels,

Buckner vice president of international resource and program development. “It’s exploded into a full-blown opportunity for these moms with the first 20 apartments, then 40 apartments, a significant college putting the program on its property and major funders in Lufkin falling in love with it underwriting it from day one.”

Growth happened far beyond Lufkin. In 2005, Buckner opened Family Pathways locations in Amarillo, Dallas and Midland. During the next several years, Buckner started Family Pathways locations in Lubbock, Conroe and Houston. Last year, Buckner launched its latest location in Longview.

As a result of the expansion, Buckner was able to equip and empower more single parents and strengthen more families each year. In the past two decades, Family Pathways has impacted more than 5,800 lives from nearly 1,950 families.

The evolution of the program has included more than geographical expansion; Family Pathways is a holistic effort that attempts to help single parents in a variety of ways, including counseling, parenting classes, lessons on conflict resolution, communication support, tutoring, child care and housing.

“We tell them up front: You’re going to do a lot of things while you’re here, but you’re going to be a different person when you leave. We want them to yes have an education
and career and pay their own bills but we also want

them to feel con dent parenting successfully and independently, seeking out healthy and productive friendships and relationships and just feeling good as a person,” said Marissa Phillips, executive director of Buckner in Lufkin.

“As I’ve gone around and done presentations and researched other areas to see what may be going on in the field, there really isn’t anyone doing what we’re doing at Buckner Family Pathways, in the same way and in the same scope. And just the depth of experience that we bring to the programming, that we’ve developed in response to our residents’ needs over the years, I think puts us in a unique position to serve their needs.”

Tiara Johnson came to Family Pathways in Lufkin to complete her education and give her 4-year-old daughter, Kaylen, a better life. What’s she found is guidance, support, encouragement and practical tools to succeed at home and in the classroom.

“The program is amazing,” she said. “They just do so much here. Not only do they allow you to be able to go to school, further your education, get a career path lined out, but they also focus on teaching you how to become an adult and a self-sufficient adult after Buckner.”

Family Pathways’ approach helps change the way single parents think about themselves and the world around them. Raising a child alone is difficult and lacking a college education compounds the issues because it’s harder to support a family.

Throughout the program, staff, mentors and leaders pour biblical truths into residents’ lives. For several years, program participants learn that God loves them and people care about them as they accomplish one goal after another.

“I had a community behind me,” said Shanna Bush, who graduated from the Dallas Family Pathways program in 2016. “It was like a family. I didn’t have to worry about certain things like when I got depressed, things like that. We had therapy sessions, things of that nature that I probably used to be like, ‘Oh, I’m never going to do therapy.’ But I did it, and it helped. I had help for my kids. You know, just that whole community behind you.”

Success begets success, breaking generational cycles of poverty, according to Family Pathways statistics. When parents achieve one goal, it gives them the confidence to strive toward another. Once parents string together several small victories, they begin dreaming bigger and believing in themselves.

Children watch as their parents’ lives are transformed and learn lessons through observation. They see education is important. They grasp the importance of hard work. They see how much their parents love them and strive to improve themselves. More than 90 percent of Family Pathways graduates’ children later go on to college, continuing the pattern they saw growing up.

“It’s like I tell the graduates, ‘When you walk that stage as a Buckner graduate, you’re not doing it for yourself. Think of the example you’re setting for your kids,’” Larry Phillips said. “They have powerful statistics over these 20 years that tell how many of those kids that came through this program as kids are now graduates of high school and college. That’s incredible.”

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