Rockford’s oldest family services center is feeling the strain of a tough economy, but with a new director, it’s finding new ways to serve those in need. Explore this dedicated center and how you can help.
Ts the new executive director of Family Counseling Services (FCS), 210 N. Longwood St., Rockford, Therasa Zito has come full circle.
“My mother sought help here when I was growing up,” says the Rockford native. “She was a single mom with two kids, working two and three jobs with no insurance. She needed emotional support and guidance, which Family Counseling Services provided.”
FCS is the only counseling center in Rockford to offer services to clients who have no insurance, on a sliding fee scale, and Zito herself, now a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), benefitted from that. “I came here in high school, when I was going through some ‘growing pains,’ I guess you could call it,” she says. “We couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. I mean, we literally had no place else to go. Family Counseling Services, to a large degree, helped to shape my life and who I am today.”
FCS provides therapy and counseling for individuals, families, couples and groups, by an accredited, experienced staff of LCSWs and, when available, qualified interns. Clients are charged a percentage of the standard industry rate of $140 per 50-minute session, based on their annual income and household size. The lowest fee paid is $22; for short-term issues, a supervised session with an intern, when available, is $10. Insurance for covered clients covers the deficit.
FCS is the only option for many in need of such services. “Rosecrance typically works with more chronic cases, such as substance abuse or serious mental disorders,” says Zito. “We’re here for the middle-of-the-road folks, without money or insurance, dealing with issues like postpartum and other types of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, grief, anger management, PTSD. We have some court-mandated clients, but most come here because they choose to. They want to feel better, so that they can function better in their daily lives and be more productive.”
FCS was founded in 1877 as the Ladies Union Aid Society, by a group of female members from 10 Rockford churches. It was the first Rockford organization to provide employment assistance, the first to offer a woman’s clothing exchange and the first to act as a food pantry. It’s the second oldest such organization still in operation in Illinois; the first is Metropolitan Family Services in Chicago, founded in 1857. Currently, FCS is struggling to keep up with increasing demands for its services.
“This agency has grown up with the city, and it has a long history of helping the community,” Zito says. “It’s evolved and morphed over that time, in order to continue to provide the types of services people need. And for more than 50 years, that’s been therapy and counseling. Society in general has come to realize that mental health issues are the result – or underlying cause – of most of the problems people experience. The physical and the mental are tied together.”
With that in mind, Zito, who took over in April 2013, is developing a strategy to allow FCS to morph into a more holistic services agency. “We want to collaborate with other agencies, to help our clients to access all of the resources they may need,” she says. “Therapy alone can’t help someone who doesn’t have enough to eat or a safe place to stay.”
In addition to connecting clients with other appropriate agencies, Zito wants to expand services to include other important life skills. Planting a community garden, offering cooking classes that feature the vegetables harvested, or teaching yoga and other stress-relieving activities, are just a few of the possibilities she has in mind as part of this holistic approach. “We need to be creative and proactive,” Zito explains. “For example, the garden is a good idea, but if you give people a vegetable they’ve never eaten, how are they going to prepare it? We need to help the whole person.”
Before FCS can grow, however, it must first ensure its continued existence. Grant money and donor funds for most nonprofits have diminished consistently over the past decade, and FCS is feeling the pinch. “We get no government funding,” says Zito. “We get the majority of our support from the local United Way, but they’re short on funds, too. We used to receive about $300,000 annually and over time this has dwindled down to receiving $43,000 this year. We’ve been mandated to update our technology to handle billing and record-keeping, and we’re in that process, but that’s a cost we didn’t have before. We’re undergoing office and procedural changes because of the new technology. We’re getting new board members. We have a lot of work to do, and pretty slim resources.”
Thus, fundraising is also at the top of Zito’s to-do list. The agency’s big annual benefit is “Dancing with the Rockford Stars,” now in its sixth year, to be held at Clock Tower Resort in Rockford on Nov. 23. “This year, we have a new great opener that hasn’t been done in the past,” Zito says. “The dancers are well-known in the community, and have volunteered to learn to dance and compete to raise money. It’s going to be really fun.”
Local businesses and individuals are donating items for a silent auction. Dancers solicit monetary donations, with a current tally for each team kept on the event’s website; before and during the event, attendees give money to vote for their favorites. Tickets, $65 each, can be purchased at dancewithrockfordstars.com, where interested parties can pledge to contribute items for the silent auction or make a monetary donation. Currently, it’s the agency’s biggest fundraiser besides “A Cheater’s Spelling Bee” that takes place in April.
“This year, we were privileged to have a northern Illinois area Agency on Aging volunteer to help part-time to fundraise and make FCS more visible to the community,” says Zito. “Nobody knows we’re here, and that’s a major problem. I attended a local violence workshop recently, and one of the attendees announced, ‘We just don’t have a place in Rockford to send people who have no money or insurance.’ I raised my hand and said, ‘Yes you do.’ She had no idea we existed. We’ve been around since 1877, and we’ve been in this building upwards of 30 years. Yet no one knows about us.”
Last year, FCS helped about 1,200 clients, but Zito knows that many more people in need would take advantage of its services – if they knew about them. She believes collaboration with other organizations is vital to growing that awareness, as well as treating the whole person.
“I’d like to bring people from all of the area’s subsidized services together in one room,” she says. “Not for a meeting or conference, but just so that we can all meet. I want to build relationships, so that we can achieve that holistic approach – advocating for better housing, reducing crime in our community. Maybe we can’t help in those specific areas, but there are many more where we could. We were just contacted by Northern Illinois Hospice, which can no longer provide outpatient grief counseling or support groups in the schools. So that’s a need we’ll try to fill. But what if hospice hadn’t known about us?”
The help provided at FCS benefits not only individuals, but also the community. “The majority of our clients are those struggling with issues that affect their ability to function day-to-day and be productive,” Zito says. “We help people to return to their normal functioning. We help people to feel better. When they feel better, they’re more productive.”
Zito has worked in counseling for nearly 20 years, half of it spent in Chicago. She graduated from Rockford University with a psychology degree, and went on to earn a master’s in social work at Aurora University.
She worked for six years at Hull House, which she learned about while at Rockford University. Founded in 1889, the Jane Addams Hull House Foundation closed its doors in 2012.
“I never thought that I’d leave Chicago, but Rockford needs social services,” Zito says. “If Hull House can close, then no organization is safe. I’m passionate about this place. It’s very dear to my heart. When folks are down on their luck, we’re here for them, and if we go away, there’s no place else, and that would be a shame.”