Services agency open, but clients are scarce

Office in North Laurel could lose a big grant


There are chairs lined up in the waiting area. There are toys for children. There are rooms for counselors to see clients and pamphlets on the front desk, offering free help from nonprofit organizations.

But unlike most social services agency offices, the North Laurel office of Family and Children's Services has attracted very few people seeking help, which is jeopardizing the office's funding.

The North Laurel office of Family and Children's Services provides free or inexpensive help such as counseling, employment assistance, help for the disabled, aid to pay energy bills and assistance for immigrants -- but very few people are taking advantage of the services.

If the center does not find people to help, it may lose its primary source of money, a grant of about $77,000 from the Horizon Foundation for yearly funding.

Social workers agree there is a need for the office in North Laurel, and they say its flow of clients is not as steady as similar centers in Columbia simply because it has not been there long.

"The concern we've had is the utilization of these services," said Richard Krieg, president of the Horizon Foundation. "It's been slower going than anyone thought at the outset."

Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland, a Columbia-based nonprofit organization that provides counseling services, opened its North Laurel satellite in 2004 and has struggled to find people to help, despite advertising.

The agency's Columbia headquarters helped 517 patients between July 2004 and June 2005. The Laurel office, in comparison, only saw 124 people.

In an effort to provide more services -- and draw more clients -- the agency started combining offices in March with other social service organizations, including Community Action Council, Domestic Violence Center, Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), Grassroots Crisis Intervention and the Legal Aid Bureau.

Since they often shared client referrals, officials at Family and Children's Services thought that bringing in the other Columbia-based agencies might help. They billed the concept of all the organizations under one roof as a "one-stop shop" of services for individuals and families.

"It's the kind of cross-pollination we want," said Pat Thompson, district director of Family and Children's Services. "We talk to our clients and say, `Oh, you have a domestic violence problem, let me connect you with the Domestic Violence Center.' Or, `Oh, you have a legal issue, let me connect you with the Legal Aid Bureau.'"

However, the new organizations' presence has not helped much, despite efforts to get people to come in, even without appointments.

"We finally had a walk-in last week, so that's a good thing," said Jodi Finkelstein, executive director of the Domestic Violence Center, which has office hours once a week in the North Laurel office.

The grant from the Horizon Foundation -- the largest foundation in Howard County, with $83 million in assets -- covers 43 percent of the roughly $180,000 the North Laurel center costs Family and Children's Services each year. The other two major sources of funding are grants from United Way and the county government.

When the center opened, the Horizon Foundation provided a three-year grant that lasts through this December. The organization has not offered any more money, and without it, the office likely would close.

"If the grant weren't renewed, I think it would be a loss for the community," Thompson said.

Krieg said the Horizon Foundation's Southeast Howard County Community Council has identified a need for social services in the North Laurel area, which hosts a large base of the county's immigrant community.

Some people from North Laurel have long been using social services in Columbia.

Maria del Carmen Casas, a Mexican who has lived in the United States for 12 years, once got help from FIRN in its Columbia office. However, she lives in Laurel, so on a recent Wednesday she went to the North Laurel center to see Kristin Lilly.

A bilingual counselor, Lilly helped Casas apply for her 2-month-old son's U.S. passport.

"It has happened to me that I have to fill out a form, but I don't understand the questions," Casas said in Spanish. The North Laurel center, she says, is convenient.

"It favors me a lot because there are times you don't have transportation," Casas said. "There are times a friend doesn't want to drive so far, and you can even just walk to the office here in Laurel."

Despite an apparent demand for social services in the North Laurel, Jessup and Elkridge areas, the Columbia offices get more traffic.

"On Mondays and Tuesdays, we're pretty busy," said Lilly, who works for FIRN in North Laurel on Wednesdays and in Columbia the other weekdays.

The Domestic Violence Center, which has had one person walk in at the Laurel office since it opened in early June, usually has one or two people walk in per week in its Columbia office, according to Finkelstein. The organization has been at its Columbia office since 1975.

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