Cathy Alston-Kearney relaxes in her second-floor office at the Warren Family Institute in Warrenton. Just over her right shoulder, not far from a framed picture of poet Gwendolyn Brooks and family photos of smiling children, sits a computer with a 10-inch plastic figurine of Dr. Spock posed on top. Clad in trademark Star Trek apparel, the Vulcan’s tilted head, bent brows and pointy ears give one the impression he is scrutinizing every word Alston-Kearney speaks. "I am definitely a trekkie," she shamelessly proclaims, when asked about the presence of the space icon in her office. Alston-Kearney admits to being fascinated by such topics as science-fiction and space travel. "I just love thinking about the possibilities," she says, with a smile.
As executive director of the Warren Family Institute, Alston-Kearney helps create both possibilities and opportunities for struggling families on a daily basis. Since 1994, the nonprofit and family-centered community development corporation has practiced a holistic approach toward supporting and involving families in the surrounding low-wealth communities. Along with reserving half of its board seats for affected parents and consumers, the Institute coordinates job training, family counseling, community outreach, housing assistance, financial counseling, and a variety of youth enrichment programs during summer and after-school. In doing so, it collaborates with a host of public and private entities, including local financial institutions, the Dept. of Social Services, and the Warren County Public Schools. On average, the Institute assists 350 families each year.
"What we’ve created is a haven for families to explore their options and figure out what they want to do," says Alston-Kearney, stressing the need for service organizations to regard families as a unit. "We work directly with entire families to move them toward independence."
Though impossible to quantify the Institute’s full impact on the region, the numbers certainly demonstrate that some remarkable progress has been made in Warren County. [For more information, please go to the Data section of this website and open the Warren County pages in NCCAI's NC Children's Index, 2002]. During Alston-Kearney’s tenure at the Warren Family Institute, there have been dramatic reductions in:
- the number of children in poverty (33% fewer in the past decade);
- the number youth in the juvenile justice system (39% less); and,
- the infant mortality rate (down 47%).
During the same period, there was a substantial increase in the number of children enrolled in day care. In addition, Warren County’s SAT scores rose by 200 points, even though many more high school students there take the SAT now than ten years ago.
"Cathy thinks outside of the box when it comes to children and families," says Nathan Hawes, board chair of the Warren Family Institute. Hawes, a former chair of Halifax-Warren County Smart Start program and current president of the Warren County NAACP, characterizes Kearney as dedicated, dynamic and proactive. "It’s difficult to work with the child and not the parents," he insists, noting that society often labels kids as "problem children, when what we really have are parents with problems." Through offering a wide array of services including workshops on parenting, continues Hawes, "Cathy has been very effective at meeting the needs of the entire family."
Along with heading the highly-regarded Warren Family Institute, the Nash County native and mother of three is active in the Halifax-Warren Smart Start Partnership for Children, the North Carolina Partnership for Children, and is a Senate appointee to the Legislative Study Commission on Children and Youth. Alston-Kearney is also the Children’s Church Coordinator and Youth Pastor at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Littleton.
She credits her grandparents and the seniors in her community with instilling in her, at an early age, a drive to succeed. "I never thought there was anything that I couldn’t achieve," says Alston-Kearney, noting the large number of elderly people in her town of Nashville who led by example. "They did for themselves," she recalls, "even without much money."
Alston-Kearney was also inspired by the health problems that plagued her community during her childhood. Initially, she considered a career in medicine. However, as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she recognized the need for people to stress disease prevention, especially in rural black communities like hers. "I wanted to help people make better choices," says Alston-Kearney. Accordingly, she graduated with a BS in Public Health Education from UNC in 1981. Not long after graduation, she spent three years as a Health Education Supervisor for the Northampton County Health Department. In that capacity, Alston-Kearney coordinated and secured funding for a variety of community health initiatives, including wellness promotion, teen pregnancy prevention and community education.
In 1987, Alston-Kearney left the Northampton position to become the Director of Community Schools and Public Relations in Halifax County. She initiated a variety of programs for the county school system, including after-school and summer enrichment vehicles, and a "Community Input Forum" where parents could directly address the local Board of Education. After four years in Halifax, Alston-Kearney moved to Greensboro and continued to serve families and children as the Family Resource Center Director for Uplift Inc., a neighborhood-based family support center. There, she supervised literacy, leadership development and nursing outreach programs while coordinating clothing and food drives for public housing communities.
In 1992, Alston-Kearney agreed to head the Opportunities For Families fund (OFF) in Warren County. This Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation initiative was a $1 million demonstration project designed to move families out of poverty in Warren County. What attracted Alston-Kearney to the position was OFF’s holistic approach. "There was a real commitment to approach families as families," she says, explaining that the project was not just geared toward individual issues like teen pregnancy, or a particular family member. "At a time where Warren County was the most impoverished community in the state, you couldn’t just take a single-file approach toward issues." This effort, continues Alston-Kearney, looked at "a significant chunk of the spectrum including jobs, housing, and health, as well as education for the children and the adults."
Out of the OFF project, Alston-Kearney created the Warren Family Institute. Since then, her successes tell the story. Alston-Kearney has received a number of awards for her stewardship of the Institute including a 1995 Wildacres Leadership Initiative Fellowship, a 1999 North Carolina Association of CDC’s Community Involvement of the Year Award, and a 2002 Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation sabbatical grant for community leaders. However, even with such honors, Alston-Kearney is clear about her own definition of success. "It’s most rewarding seeing families who have partnered with us over the years doing well," she says, noting how she is inspired when youth who have benefited from the Institute give back. "Some of them intentionally come back to Warren County to volunteer and work because they want to be here."
Alston-Kearney is also clear about what’s wrong with society’s current attitude toward kids. "I’m concerned that children’s behaviors are being criminalized too early," she says, noting how quick the judicial system is to punish actions that are "symptoms of other problems." Alston-Kearney offers the example of young kids bringing guns to school. What, she asks, "are we doing about the fact that children can get those weapons in the first place?"
While Alston-Kearney stresses the serious nature of such misguided youthful actions, she highlights why the Warren Family Institute has been successful in reaching both children and families on a more positive level. "Flexibility is the key," she insists, saying that independent family service organizations, unlike traditional agencies, can "shift with the needs of the community." Alston-Kearney refers to a new home construction initiative her organization is involved in to make her point. "We are making the shift to being active players on the economic development front," she says. "We’re now in the business of building families and homes."
Alston-Kearney is also building for the future. For years to come, she envisions herself and her organization at the forefront of advocating for families while providing access to housing and services that allow them to stand on their own. Such foresight is ultimately the reason why she relates to the pointy-eared spaceman sitting on her computer. "If there’s a strength I have, it’s vision," says Alston-Kearney, with eyes twinkling. She sits up excitedly in her chair and proclaims, "I can see it!"
One doesn’t have to be Mr. Spock to imagine the possibilities.