“It’s a miracle,” says Washoe County Children’s Services Division Director Alice LeDesma about the new Family Engagement Center on 905 East Prater Way that celebrated its grand opening on Dec. 6. Completed on time and on budget, the new Family Engagement Center is finally open and giving families adequate space and support they need to maintain strong relationships (which happens to be just in time for the holidays).
“(Construction) went very smoothly and I’d have to chalk that up to the general public and project manager for keeping it moving,” says LeDesma. The Family Engagement Center hosted a soft opening around Thanksgiving to invite families into the new space and has since seen a noticeable difference in how they spend time with each other just in the few weeks it’s been open.
Thanks to a federal grant and money provided by the Washoe County Commissioners, the Washoe County Human Services Agency was able to purchase the vacant building on Prater Way and began renovating it in May 2017. Previously, the Human Services Agency coordinated family visitations through a six-story office building located at 350 South Center Street in Reno, yet it has not been as conducive to meeting with its small visitation rooms, lack of parking, and strict visiting hours.
“A lot of times there are other relatives involved, groups of siblings, and other situations where families simply need more space. An office building doesn’t provide that,” says LeDesma. Developed to make available more personalized time for families to spend together, the Sparks Family Engagement Center is a home of reunification and healing for children who do not live at home yet want to remain connected to their extended family, estranged or biological parents.
“The great thing about this location is there is a lot of open space. We have a big huge beautiful kitchen for families to cook together in. It’s been proven that bonding over food in everyday life helps strengthen relationships,” says LeDesma. Along with a new kitchen, the Family Engagement Center has large meeting and play areas as well as age-appropriate intimate settings. LeDesma says that the difference in visitation is significant as staff is seeing families more relaxed, largely due to its bigger parking lot and accessibility.
“There are not a lot of visitation centers in other parts of the nation set up this way,” she adds. “But our whole goal has been facilitation relationship development for kids and keeping their caregivers and families all on the same page.”
Although many of the visits have moved from the Reno location to the Sparks center, there are still a few families that meet at 350 S. Center Street. However, the new Sparks location has already been hosting 300-350 visits per week and the new Sparks location allows families to meet more often for longer periods of time. While the Reno location only hosts visiting hours Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Sparks Family Engagement Center is able to stay open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and is planning to be open on Saturdays.
“The peak time for visitations is from 3 to 5 p.m. when kids get out of school yet right before dinner,” says LeDesma. However, 5 p.m. is usually when parents get off of work and therefore couldn’t visit their children because that is when the Reno facility would close. “Families needed more time and more space,” she says.
“This has been a great move, I’ve been with the County for 30 years and it’s nice to see a project go this smoothly. I really attribute that to the community getting involved. People were interested in it and wanted it to do well. I truly thank them for their support and interest, even in the smallest ways like through donations and social media. It’s made such a difference in our visitations and has allowed us to change our approach in a way that the staff and the families have truly embraced,” LeDesma adds.
The Family Engagement Center isn’t done yet, though. Next, it plans to build an outdoor therapeutic play garden that will hopefully be completed in early spring. While dependent on funding and weather, but the blueprints are in place to develop an outside area complete with a waterfall and shrubbery.