SOUTH BEND — The Catholic Charities ECHO program in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend has offered young parents the encouragement and resources to achieve their academic goals and provide a more secure future for their families since 1998. This program, entitled “Education Creates Hope and Opportunity” (ECHO), was a partnership first begun with Lutheran Social Services in East Allen County, which recently expanded to St. Joseph County in the fall of 2011.
The purpose of ECHO is to provide one-on-one assistance and support for students who face unplanned pregnancies and struggle with the challenges of parenting, specifically by helping them address the barriers they face in meeting their educational goals.
ECHO was created to serve as witness of the Gospel by demonstrating genuine care and compassion for these young, vulnerable members of the community. Teen parents and children need resources and support to overcome the obstacles they face. Those who do not graduate from high school are at high risk for struggling with poverty throughout their lives, which constrains their children’s future and weakens the community. Some of the issues they will face include insecure housing, transportation difficulties, fewer employment opportunities, lower incomes, reliance upon public assistance, food insecurity and poorer health.
In response to this need, ECHO provides individualized academic support, assistance in accessing community service and practice setting and achieving personal and academic goals. ECHO case managers encourage positive relationship building with school personnel and extended family members, as well as faithfully attending all medical appointments to ensure that both mother and child remain healthy.
Students in these situations often need assistance with the college and financial aid application process, visiting and enrolling in school, identifying resources to assist with medical, childcare, household or other needs, and finding information when seeking a part time job. Because every situation is unique, ECHO case mangers work with the students one-on-one to determine their specific needs and help locate those resources, providing individualized services for each client. The individualized focus and dedication from the ECHO team has even included having case managers bring girls their homework when on bed rest and unable to be present at school.
Claire Coleman, ECHO director for St. Joseph County, explained the steps case managers take to begin leading the young parents in a positive direction. “We first focus on setting small short-term goals, which the young women see as within their ability to achieve. These goals include developing time management skills, making positive decisions and building self-confidence.”
She emphasized that these initial steps serve as a catalyst to larger successes, saying, “We notice as we work with them that once their confidence improves and they begin to hit some of their small goals, their attendance improves, their GPA improves and any behavior issues they previously demonstrated rapidly diminish.”
ECHO coordinates with most of the South Bend community schools and is active in all of the high schools, including the alternative schools. Since the introduction of the program in St. Joseph County, 99 students have come to receive service: 95 girls and four boys. In the first two years having the program locally, 100 percent of the high school seniors enrolled in the ECHO program graduated from high school. This past year 91 percent of the high school seniors received their diploma on time and three students have received their GED.
The case managers also work with those applying to college through a variety of services, including assistance in filling out a FAFSA application and recommending what questions to ask when visiting a prospective school. For those who enroll in the program while in high school, ECHO case managers are able to continue working with the client up to age 24 so long as he or she is enrolled in a post-secondary educational program. Currently, 35 students overall are enrolled in the program, comprised of 22 high school students and 13 college students.
Coleman shared, “Amazingly, the ECHO case management work has been overseen and completed primarily by two members of the Catholic Charities staff, Kwajalein Dodd and Michelle Story. Kwajalein has been a member of the ECHO staff since the program first started and has been instrumental in making connections within the community, especially in establishing relationships for referrals with other social service agencies and through sitting on the advisory board of the school-age mothers program. Additionally, Michelle, who joined last year, was willing from the very beginning to jump right in and be part of the team.”
The ECHO program has also been supported through generous funding from both private organizations, including the Raskob Foundation and Our Sunday Visitor, and individual donations. Additionally, the Catholic Charities ECHO staff works often with Women’s Care Center in the diocese to ensure that the needs of every woman they encounter are cared for appropriately and compassionately.
Anyone who is in need or knows of anyone in need of the support provided by Catholic Charities or ECHO is encouraged to visit their website at www.ccfwsb.org.
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