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Child Welfare Is Focus of Gary Center

The Gary Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year by offering more services to families in need.

On Fridays, 100 to 200 families stop by the center, at 341 Hillcrest St., to buy a bag of groceries for $1. Center officials said the food giveaway is growing as the number of poor in the city increases.

“We give meat, soda, pasta salad, beans, rice, cookies, tortillas and cereal,” said Guillermina Sahagun, a mother of four and center volunteer who also receives a bag of groceries each week.

“It’s good food, and families like mine come to get it because most of them are jobless or working only part time and don’t earn enough to feed their children,” she said.

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The families line up and wait as many as two hours for the food, Sahagun said. “They really need this help.”

Another popular service at the center is the dental clinic, which has a patient waiting list, Executive Director Martha Lester said. She said it opened 10 years ago for a couple of days a week and now is open six days a week.

The private nonprofit organization’s main service, however, is offering family counseling and mediation, Lester said. Some of the counseling topics focus on crisis management, relationship issues, sexual abuse, domestic violence and parenting skills.

A new counseling program that will target teenagers who are expelled from school and sent to alternative high schools will begin within weeks. “It will be free to high-risk kids,” Lester said. “Our goal is to try to get them back in the regular schools by working on self-esteem and anger management.”

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The center was founded by Gary Stafford’s parents in 1971, the year their 20-year-old son died of a drug overdose. Its emphasis is on child welfare through education and support for the whole family, Lester said.

That’s why “counseling is the main thing we do,” she said. “Eighty percent of the people we see are below the poverty level. We work on giving them higher self-esteem and help them feel better about dealing with their day-to-day problems in life.”

About 3,000 families participate in the center’s programs annually. Lester said she expects that number to grow by at least 500 in the coming year.


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