The Decker Center is truly a partnership; it is not even a separate entity. It began as collaboration among Barberton City Schools, Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron, and the University of Akron. In the late 1980s, a needs assessment conducted by the Akron-based Coalition for Summit County's Early Intervention Program found that Barberton was one of two areas of dire poverty in the county that were not receiving necessary services. Recognizing their role in meeting those needs, the three organizations jointly applied for a grant to provide social services in Barberton. Although this grant request was turned down, the process helped them settle on the concept of a one-stop center for families.
The assistant superintendent of Barberton City Schools volunteered a long-empty school to house the Center, and the Summit County Department of Human Services gave the partners money to fix it up. After several attempts, they won grant funding, and the Decker Family Development Center opened its doors in 1990. "I remember it being so empty when we first opened that I could hear my footsteps when I walked down the hall," said Mary Frances Ahern, Decker's director.
Decker provides a wide range of services to low-income families with multiple risk factors, in addition to offering pre-employment training and GED instruction. Decker has on-site childcare, enrichment programs for children aged six weeks to five years, parent education programs, crisis counseling, job shadowing, computer instruction, physical and mental health services, and more. Center staff believe that a holistic approach incorporating a broad range of programs and services is necessary for clients to make sustained progress. Decker's mental health coordinator, Vince DeGeorge, sums up this view: "It's literacy, it's work-related training, it's independent living skills, and it's dealing with the ghosts of the past. It's woven through the lives of the folks that come through these doors."
Each year, Decker serves roughly 225 families with 330 pre-school-aged children. Data collected in 2001 by Decker's researcher/evaluator, Brian Pendleton, revealed that many program participants were second- or third-generation public assistance recipients, and roughly three-quarters were single parents. Although 75 percent of participants had completed between nine and eleven years of formal education, 72 percent initially tested at literacy levels below ninth grade. Participants' median level of literacy proficiency, including reading, math computation, math application, and language, was about seventh-grade level.
These statistics, however, provide only a partial picture of the needs of the families that come through Decker's doors. Most adults at the Center have experienced serious problems that include, among other things, domestic violence, substandard housing, lack of independent living skills, and acute poverty. Eighty-nine percent of families participating in Decker's programs in 2001 had annual incomes below $12,000. Thirty-nine percent reported annual incomes under $6,000, and an additional 29 percent reported incomes under $3,000. The statewide median household income is $40,956.1
Once the Decker Center was open, local residents still needed to be convinced to use its services. Barberton is a small city, and Decker staff were seen initially as "do-gooders coming in from Akron." Many potential clients had a history of negative experiences with educational and social service agencies and were thus reluctant to admit to any need. Decker staff persisted. They went out into the community and knocked on doors to let people know what they had to offer. Initially, referrals came from the Department of Jobs and Family Services, as well as the hospital and school district. Although it took time to gain the trust of the community, families who have been at Decker are now their biggest referral source.
1U.S. Census Bureau, State and County QuickFacts-Ohio, Median Household Money Income, 1999. Available at: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/39000.html. (back to text)