"Over the years we have challenged ourselves to examine our work and understand how we can improve it. "
By Patricia Daddona PBN Staff Writer
Aimee G. Mitchell is senior vice president for programs and operations and the Head Start director at Children’s Friend, a social service agency founded in 1834 that strives to improve the well-being and healthy development of Rhode Island's most vulnerable children and their families.
In 2013, Children’s Friend provided safe and nurturing environments during the crucial early years to over 31,000 children, and helped their parents gain access to the resources, education, and support to help their children live healthy and productive lives.
Mitchell oversees all agency direct service programs, as well as several operational areas at Children’s Friend. Prior to joining Children’s Friend in 2007, Mitchell spent eight years at the Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke, Mass., providing clinical management to the Child and Adolescent In-Patient Unit. She has more than 20 years experience as a clinical social worker in a variety of management positions.
Her past work entailed training and consultation in dialectical behavior therapy for adolescents, and she co-authored papers on the subject in the American Journal of Psychotherapy. She received a Master’s degree in clinical social work from Smith College in 1998, and graduated from the UCLA/Johnson & Johnson Head Start Management Fellows Program in 2009.
PBN: What is the philosophy behind the agency’s focus on prenatal and early childhood development and care?
MITCHELL: Children’s Friend has spent the last 180 years supporting vulnerable children and families in Rhode Island. High quality innovative services provided by well trained staff, who are supported by a strong work environment, is what it is all about. Over the years we have challenged ourselves to examine our work and understand how we can improve it. We have never settled for anything that was simply “good enough.” High quality early childhood services changes the very trajectory of the lives of the children we serve and we must continue to do the best we possibly can to deliver this to kids and families.
PBN: How has your clinical expertise with childhood trauma, behavior therapy and childhood mental illness informed your work at Children’s Friend?
MITCHELL: I spent nearly eight years overseeing clinical services on a children’s in-patient unit. I specialized in trauma and specifically the profound impact that trauma could have on young children and the dramatic imprint it left in the years to follow. Trauma and mental health are a much bigger theme in early childhood than many recognize. In these early years, the foundation of how kids see themselves and their world is laid. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built! The hundreds of children and families I worked with have led me to the strong conviction that we can make a difference by supporting children and families early with the best possible services and supports.
PBN: As a leader guiding direct service programming, what are the main elements you look for when setting up programs that help provide a safe environment for kids?
MITCHELL: A program that aims to provide a safe environment for children is one that understands the critical role of relationships and attachment, regardless of the setting. Whether you are helping parents learn how to do this, teaching staff how to do this or educating those that support children and families – the only way to ensure success is to understand that a child cannot thrive or develop well without a strong, stable relationship.
PBN: What is your biggest fundraising obstacle and what are you doing to overcome it?
MITCHELL: There are two big challenges in fundraising. The first of these is unquestionably the federal funding environment. So many of the services we provide for vulnerable children and families are federally funded and therefore our ability to serve our families can become dependent on the political climate in Washington, D.C., just as it did last fall with the implementation of sequestration. It creates instability for the people we serve as well as the staff in our agency.
The second challenge for me is the perception of people living in poverty. All too often, the general impression is that somehow it is the fault of those people. They are living in poverty because of something they have or have not done. Families, as we all know, are much more complicated than that, and poverty is incredibly complicated. Figuring out how to share with people just how challenging it can be to live in poverty and create change for themselves and their families is something I work on every day.
PBN: What is the most successful program at Children's Friend; why do you think it's popular and are there any new ones on the horizon?
MITCHELL: There are many innovative programs and services at Children’s Friend and it would be hard to select just one. What I would say instead is that the people of Children’s Friend are one of its greatest assets – whether you are talking about an exceptionally dedicated Board of Directors, the staff that ensures that our sites are open and welcoming, or a home visitor that goes the extra mile to make sure that a family receives the support they need to.
We have a core attitude of [going] “above and beyond.” Working here is truly a privilege. Our current strategic plan is very exciting work for me in that we are moving to develop an integrated, seamless system of care for the children and families we serve. And we are doing this by developing processes that engage stakeholders from within the agency, the community, as well as the parents we serve, to decide how best to deliver this. We believe strongly that families receive a set of core supports that take place regardless of the program supporting you. There is substantial research available that supports what children and families need to be able to thrive – our work is to make sure that this happens for all the families regardless of the source of funding