Family Services marks 85th year

Family Services Inc.’s role has changed over the years, but it continues to play a major role in the community.

“The question to ask is what would the community lose if it would lose Family Services,” said Lisa Hann, executive director since Nov. 1. “Over the last 10 years, we have touched about 60,000 lives across all of our programs. Without us, there would be no place for battered women to bring their children. We are the only homeless shelter in the community.”

“We are turning away 500 people [per year] who are seeking shelter because we are full,” said Cheryl Gonsman, director of education and marketing.

The nonprofit organization, which was inducted into the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame in 2008, is marking its 85th anniversary in 2013.

Family Services, which serves people form Blair and its contiguous counties, traces its roots to the Blair County Children’s Aid Society, which was incorporated in 1928 and was affiliated with the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania. Its main objectives were to care for orphans and place children in a home setting in order to prevent placing them in county homes, county jails or reformatories.

In November 1946, Family Services of Altoona was created to coordinate services to address physical, financial, psychiatric and personal problems that threatened family life.

A merger between the two agencies occurred in 1958. The entire staff moved into new offices at 2022 Broad Ave. in 1959, and the organization became known as Family and Children’s Service of Blair County.

Two name changes later, the organization became Family Services Inc. in 2004.

Today’s primary services are providing shelter, finding permanent homes and counseling.

“Everything we do can be broken down into these areas. We provide services to people with intellectual disabilities, those in domestic abuse and crime victims,” Hann said.

Today Family Services is best known for its domestic abuse shelter, which provides 21 beds for women and children.

“I think their biggest role is providing shelter for people in Altoona and Blair County. People have no idea how many people are in need of these services,” said Mike Phillips, director of operations at Asurion and a member of the Family Services board. “There is so much violence and domestic abuse that gets overlooked by a vast majority of people; it reaches all parts of the community.”

“We are the only county in the area providing this service, and we’ve been offering it for 30 years,” Hann said. “If there is an abused male, we can help him find shelter.”

Family Services also provides a 22-bed Emergency Shelter for homeless or near homeless people and a six-bed Teen Center and shelter for youth 12 to 17 years old to address the needs of runaway, homeless and at risk youth and their families.

Family Services provides those at the Emergency Shelter with more than just a shelter.

“We help them write resumes, find jobs and offer counseling services. When the ladies leave, they know what to do and look for. These shelters wouldn’t be anything if we didn’t offer the programs,” Hann said. “Ninety percent who leave shelters have completed their resume, and about 70 percent have walked out with employment.”

The intellectual disabilities program is also very important.

“That is where providing permanent homes comes into play. This allows them to live everyday lives in the community and be able to do what they want to do,” Hann said.

Family Services provides services for all ages.

“We serve everyone. We start with kids who are sexually abused. People with intellectual disabilities who are in their 80s. We serve the entire life span,” Hann said.

“We had a 9-month-old that was sexually abused about seven years ago. We do some of the stuff that nobody else wants to do. We get called out in the middle of the night to meet with a child and his family who has been sexually abused. We came to the aid of a woman who had been severely beaten. I was called to tell a family their mother wasn’t coming home [she had been murdered]. We are on call 24/7,” Gonsman said.

Anyone is eligible for services.

“Most of our services are free. If you are a victim of a crime, we don’t turn you away whether you do or do not have the finances,” Hann said.

Family Services is working with the Second Avenue United Methodist Church to start a volunteer mentoring program.

“Teams of mentors would work with folks coming out of the shelters. This would give them support and a safety net and give them good advice and direction,” Hann said.

Today Family Services Inc. employs 104 people and follows the “Live Here Buy Here” principal for 90 percent of its purchases.

“There is always 10 percent we can’t find. The community doesn’t know we own homes for our intellectual disabilities program and we pay taxes on them. Being a nonprofit, we are not required to pay taxes; we do that by choice. We try to be a good neighbor,” Hann said.

Hann said the biggest challenge facing Family Services is getting the word out to the community about what it does and what it needs.

“When we are out in the community, people say they didn’t know there was such a need. They want to know what they can do to help,” Hann said. “Over the last year, we have seen an increase in community donations. We have done a better job of telling people what we do and what we need.”

Hann has taken a more active role in the community.

“My approach is different than what the staff was used to. My focus is more in getting out in the community and telling our story and meeting with folks who have an interest in supporting us,” Hann said. “I have more of a personal presence in the community, that has to benefit the agency.”

Hann is optimistic about the future of Family Services, which today has close to 2,000 people enrolled in its various programs.

“We have big dreams, I tell my board to expect great things. We need more shelter beds because we are turning away 500 people. We would like to expand the services we offer in the intellectual disabilities program,” Hann said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.