Though she has worked in the same position for the past 22 years, Jean Irvin is no stranger to change. As Executive Director of the Forsyth County Health Juvenile Justice Council — a collective of 38 public and private nonprofit agencies offering an array of children’s services — the Winston-Salem resident has helped change the lives of thousands of children for the better.
"People often ask me if I ever get bored working in the same place for so long," says Irvin, with a light chuckle. "But we do so much." Unlike larger, more bureaucratic institutions, continues Irvin, the Council can "connect people with services quickly and effectively. We help children and families by making sure that the system in place to help them is smart and effective."
As a support system for Forsyth’s child-serving agencies, the Council performs a variety of functions including educating these institutions on each other’s offerings, resolving problems or disagreements between them, and making referrals. Agencies, says Irvin, often rely on her organization to inform them what services are available to best accommodate their clients. However, she points out that the Council’s supporting role manifests in other ways as well. "Sometimes, the best way to support a particular agency is to throw them a party and tell them that they are doing a good job," says Irvin.
Irvin uses her organization to bring people together on behalf of children. "We put people at the table to talk to one another," she says, noting that agency leaders are required to come to Council meetings themselves as opposed to sending their representatives. "It’s amazing what can happen if people know who each other are," insists Jean Irvin from Winston Salem NC.
No less amazing is her own commitment to seeing that children’s needs are being met. This grandmother of three sits on the North Carolina Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Section, the CenterPoint Human Services Children and Youth Advisory committee and the Governor’s Crime Commission/Intervention Committee. She serves as president of the United Way Agencies Executives Association and as a member of the Forsyth County Child Protection and Fatality Teams. Irvin is also a board member for the Forsyth County Dept. of Social Services, the United Way of Forsyth County, and Forsyth Futures, a community organization benefiting children and youth.Composed of a variety of civic leaders and child advocates, Forsyth Futures has acted as a model for the state by exemplifying how local leaders can effectively collaborate to serve children.
"She is well aware of what services have been promised kids by law," says Attorney Lewis Pitts, the director of the Advocates for Children’s Services arm of Legal Services of North Carolina. Pitts, who cherishes Irvin "as a person and a child advocate" worked with her on the NC Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice and Civil Rights Committee three years ago. "She also knows that these promised services are often not delivered and she is more than willing to speak up about it," he says, referring to ongoing problems in the areas of Medicaid, special education and foster care. Irvin’s attitude, continues Pitts, is that "if they promised it, then our kids should get it."
Irvin believes that a family’s needs and resources have to be in balance, and that change is unrealistic if they are not. "It’s wrong to identify 15 needs for a family and then only give them the resources to meet two of them," she contends, noting the complexities of dealing with such dilemmas as substance abuse and homelessness. If agencies do so, continues Irvin, "they are setting up the families to fail."
Jean Irvin’s from Winston Salem desire to meet the needs of others was sparked at an early age. In nightly conversations with her parents at their Raleigh home, she received a solid grounding in such topics as civil rights, history and music. She also was socialized to believe she could make a difference in the world. The family was a mainstay at Raleigh’s Pullen Baptist Church, an institution well known for its active role in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
Upon graduating from Broughton High School in Raleigh, Irvin attended North Carolina State University. She graduated with a BS in history in 1971. After getting married and moving to Winston-Salem, she spent time at home raising her children while volunteering for the Council from 1974 to 1979. During this period, Irvin penned the grant proposal that would ultimately allow for the organization’s ongoing function.
Regarding current state policy, Irvin thinks that a lot of folks are "thinking right" and moving in the right direction on issues of child welfare. However, she clarifies, that "thinking right is not the same as doing right." She uses the recent Leandro case as an example, stressing how it needs to be interpreted in a tangible way that improve overall child well-being, not just classroom education. Child advocates, says Irvin, have to "make sure the concerns they’ve brought to the table, stay on the table."
Irvin is also concerned by the large number of children currently suffering from mental health problems. "We’ve got to recognize that we must get these young folks help and treatment," says Irvin, noting how funding is both too meager and too segmented. "Prevention and intervention are not ‘either-or’ issues," she maintains. "They both are the issue."
Whether it’s mental health issues, drug use, violence in the home, or other problems plaguing children and their families, Irvin drives home the consequences of allowing such dilemmas to go unaddressed. A few years back, at a symposium she conducted at a local school on violence and safety, Irvin asked elementary school students what made them feel safe. One girl responded, "I feel safe when my mommy pays the rent." A young boy offered, "I feel safe when I have my gun with me."
At another program, Irvin asked a teenage student with whom she had an ongoing dialogue, what he wanted to be five years from now. The teen responded, "Ms. Irvin, in my life, you don’t get no dreams." At 6:30 the next morning, reveals Irvin, "I got a call informing me that this young boy had murdered someone." Shaken, she went back and reviewed the boy’s records. "This kid was never thought of as bright," says Irvin, noting that he’d been repeatedly classified as slow or unable to learn. And yet, outside of the school context, "He was probably the most bright and engaging kid I ever met."
The impact on Irvin is clear. "These are the things that motivate me to keep my nose to the grindstone," she says. "I want that girl to not fear losing her home, and those boys to not feel the need to carry a gun or kill somebody."
The real challenge, explains Irvin, is being well aware of the extreme social problems that drive people to behave the way they do while trying to make them understand that they cannot continue to act in such a negative way. "We can only offer them the possibility for change by creating an environment supportive of it," says Irvin. Unfortunately, "we can never do it for them. And that’s a tough thing to realize."
"Families can either do themselves a lot of good or a lot of harm," continues Irvin. By serving the agencies that serve them, she adds, "our job is to help them do no harm." It’s a job at which Irvin has succeeded admirably – and a generation of youth across Forsyth County and the state are the true beneficiaries.