In the three years since Julie Miller took the lead of Family Connection of Columbia County, the program that supports children and families has grown by leaps and bounds.
This school year marks the first one in which Harlem-based Family Connection will be promoting abstinence in all four county high schools through an age-appropriate education program.
"That was our goal," said Teka Allen, a Family Connection youth coordinator and abstinence education teacher, of the program that will begin in Greenbrier High School this fall.
The program, which was taught in Harlem, Evans and Lakeside high schools last year, focuses on the emotional and psychological consequences of teenage sex and the effects it can have on a teenager's future.
"Now that we have (taught the program) a few times, (school officials) know what it is and are comfortable with it," said Miller, Family Connection of Columbia County's executive director. "They understand that we are not teaching kids about how to put on a condom. We're teaching kids about how to be respectful of themselves, why abstinence is an important health decision."
Family Connection not only teaches abstinence education, but also offers lots of programs, camps and clubs to teens throughout the county. Most of the programs are funded through grants, which raised the group's budget from the basic $50,000 Family Connection grant in 2003 to more than $300,000 annually.
"She's been busting down the doors to do stuff,' Harlem Mayor Scott Dean said of Miller. "She is the go-out-and-get-it (person)."
Miller, who said her goal was to raise the budget by $100,000 a year, attributes the steady expansion to Family Connection's Harlem base.
"They have a vision, they really do,'' Miller said of Harlem officials and residents. "That's really half the battle right there.''
The city recently was awarded a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant to construct a building that will house both Family Connection and Columbia County's Head Start program.
The new building will offer more space for Family Connection's three full-time staffers and one part-time staffer and the upcoming addition of three AmeriCorps members through a new partnership with Hands on Georgia.
Family Connection currently runs several programs for teens, including Project PUSH, which helps teens get their GED, a LifeSkills Training Program and Camp ASAP, a six-week summer apprenticeship program for 14- and 15-year-olds that prepares them for work and life.
"We had a lot of kids who I think really made significant strides in really growing up," Miller said. "They really started making better decisions. Their attitudes improved.''
The Family Connection-sponsored Harlem High School club - Young Women of Excellence - promotes sisterhood, self-respect, academic achievement, long-range goals and community service under the belief that its members will grow into successful and community-oriented citizens.
"I believe in community service," Miller said. "My parents taught me that being involved in the community was an important part of being a responsible citizen.
"Kids who get involved in community service, they have a better connection to their community. They have a bigger investment in it.''
Family Connection's new offerings include becoming a Hands On Georgia affiliate to complete several community service projects; Communities in Schools, a national organization aimed at preventing high school dropouts; and Project Total Man, a self-esteem and skill-building program to help young men stay in school, improve their grades and develop work skills.
"(We) try to really engage them in a way that will help them see why it is important to stay in school and graduate on time, then go on to secondary education," Miller said.
For more information, call Family Connection of Columbia County at (706) 556-0609.
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