A recent grant will allow Youth First Inc., an Evansville-based nonprofit that works to prevent substance abuse and improve family relationships, to host one of its most successful programs to Spanish-speaking families in Dubois County for the first time.

The program, called Family First, helps parents with kids ages 7-17 learn to communicate better and strengthen family bonds. Project Manager Diane Braun said the program, which is regularly evaluated by third parties, has received many positive reviews and testimonies. But it was never as accessible to Hispanic families, she said, several of which only speak or are more comfortable speaking Spanish.

In 2019, nearly 9% of people living in Dubois County were Hispanic, and 6% of families reported speaking a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The grant, which was provided by the division of mental health and addictions and totals $399,000, will fund some other programs throughout the 11 counties Youth First serves, as well. But Braun said the program for Spanish-speaking families is what excites her the most.

The program, which is free to participating families, will start Jan. 28 and run over the course of 10 weeks. Once a week, virtual sessions will be led by two bilingual facilitators and materials in Spanish will be provided.

Braun said the virtual factor actually has allowed the nonprofit to reach more families than it could when programs were held in-person.

“There may just be a silver lining with COVID that we could have people in any county join in,” she said. “Through the wonder of Zoom, we can get a lot of different areas represented in a program.”

Braun said one of the most important parts of the program is helping the families to think positively about their family members, even if they live in difficult situations.

“One of the very first things that we do in the program is ask the parents, ‘Tell me something good about your child,’” she said. “That really sets the tone.”

The grant will also help Youth First provide free meals for each participating family every week. Since the pandemic, the nonprofit has been collaborating with local restaurants to provide carryout meals.

Youth First was started in 1998 by an Evansville medical doctor named William Wooten, who was an addiction specialist before he retired. Throughout his career, he noticed that more and more kids were becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. He knew that if he wanted to help, it needed to be on the prevention end.

So with the help of community and business leaders, law enforcement and other medical professionals, Wooten created a curriculum to teach parents how to cope with life’s struggles and pass those skills to their children. The nonprofit also put counselors in schools in several counties throughout southern-central Indiana so the kids would have someone to talk to about their problems — anxiety, death, divorce, anything — when they didn’t feel comfortable talking to teachers or parents yet.

Now, the nonprofit has 64 Master’s-level social workers in 91 schools in 11 counties. Social worker Abby Betz visits Holy Trinity Catholic School and Washington Catholic schools every week, and the nonprofit plans to expand other programs to other schools in the area.

As a nonprofit, Youth First relies heavily on grants and donations. Julie Hoon, vice president of philanthropy, has recently spent some of her time talking with Dubois County leaders and business owners to raise donations.

“We ask them to invest in youth first and invest in kids because one day they’ll be hiring these kids,” she said. “So you’re helping kids grow into strong individuals and healthy young people, and then they’ll be employable and giving back to that community one day.”

Hoon said she’s just getting her feet off the ground in Dubois County but plans to work with residents more in the future.

Those looking to learn more about the new Spanish-speaking program can visit the nonprofit's website at youthfirstinc.org, and the entire website can be translated into Spanish now by clicking a button in the upper-right-hand corner.
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