EAST PRAIRIE - After 10 years of community service, the Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center's mission remains as clear as the day it was conceived: "It's just to build healthy families," said Dr. Martha Ellen Black, director.
The whole thing began in 1988 with Joe Sorrels and the late Jim Winchester's idea of establishing a children's home for Mississippi County.
A committee was formed which eventually became a board, and $250,000 was raised while children's homes and family centers around the state were researched, among them the Epworth Children and Family Services in St. Louis.
Epworth went on to act as fiscal agent for the center's first five years. "When we started our name was Epworth Bootheel," Black recalled.
The building formerly occupied by the Pope Motor Company was offered to them rent-free by the owner, the Bank of East Prairie. "The children's room was the showroom," said Black.
The center opened March 4, 1992. In 1998, the Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center was able to obtain the building through donations.
Staffing the center upon its opening along with Black were Mary Robinson and Mickie Smith who are still with the center as program director and director of the child daycare services, respectively.
The staff has since grown to 48 between the center and its satellites. "We really have the best of the best people working here," said Black. "And they are here because they believe in what they do."
Long before "welfare to work" and "one stop shops" trends gained popularity, the center was accomplishing its goals by helping parents become self-supporting and independent.
It was during her time working with troubled children in the East Prairie school system that Black realized the key to helping kids with their problems is building their family relationships using activities not related to education.
Working with this goal in mind, Black discovered another key component, however. "We accidentally helped people get jobs and saw what a difference it made," said Black. "I learned parents were only ready to overcome barriers to building family relationships when they could take care of themselves."
The center soon hooked up with the state FUTURES program, now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, with a focus on developing responsibility and skills in the parents.
Since that first program, Black and the center have grown to become so adept at finding and writing grants to provide services that she feels the center probably relies too heavily on grants and wishes they could increase their donation base.
Services provided at the Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center now include literacy programs; computer training; adult and youth job training and support; court advocacy for victims of violent crimes; domestic violence victim services; preschool daycare; and youth programs.
The rules are few and simple at the center: respect others, respect yourself and inappropriate language and behavior are not allowed.
"If someone is hostile to us they have to leave," said Black, "but they can come back after three weeks."
Assistance to other communities and agencies looking to set up programs or write grants is also provided by the center.
The center became independent in 1997 at which time they adopted their present name.
Susanna Wesley, mother of Methodist Church founders John Wesley and Charles Wesley, is remembered as one of the best examples of parenthood. Despite a life of hardship with her husband gone for long periods of time, Wesley persevered not only with routine parental duties but also scheduled individual time with her children and taught each of them to read.