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November 15, 2002

Celebrating the family

From: Baton Rouge Advocate, LA
Nov. 15, 2002

Advocate staff writer

Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge will honor four families at its annual "Celebrate the Family" gala Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Old State Capitol.

Honorees include a young mother who overcame homelessness, a physician couple who help provide health care for poor families, a couple who care for deaf children and a 70-year-old mother who reared two of her own children and 30 foster children.

Valencia Jackson

"Everyone here knows about Valencia Jackson," said Carol Spruell of Catholic Community Services.

"She gave a talk about the things that Families First did for her, and there wasn't a dry eye in the place."

The Families First housing program provides shelter for entire families. Jackson now serves on Families First's advisory board.

Jackson is living on savings as she launches a business called Edvance, a company that helps students get into college.

When Jackson's husband, John, struggled with drug addiction, she moved into an apartment provided by Families First. John was able to rejoin his family.

The Jacksons were back on their feet and buying a house when John died of injuries received in an accident, his wife said.

"Mandy Green, who was the director at Families First, extended our time. She took a chance," Jackson said.

"You can't stereotype homelessness," Jackson said. "You can be one paycheck away from it."

At Families First, Jackson met families who'd lived in their automobiles or lived with relatives until that became a burden.

When people are at their lowest, "that's not the time to give up on them," Jackson said.

"Half our problems as a nation are because of the destruction of the family," she said. "Teachers and ministers can't rear our children. Corporations can't take care of us."

Drs. Laura and Bill Cassidy

Dr. Laura Cassidy, 46, a breast surgeon, and Dr. Bill Cassidy, 45, a liver specialist, are advocates of health education for families and help provide care for low-income patients. The Cassidys have three children, ages 1, 5 and 8.

Bill Cassidy helped start the Greater Baton Rouge Community Clinic providing free medical and dental services to working, low-income adults.

More than 400 medical practitioners have volunteered services valued at more than $250,000. Cassidy is on the board and provides his services to the clinic.

Sometimes called a "virtual clinic," patients are seen in the offices of pro bono doctors and dentists.

Cassidy started the Greater Baton Rouge Hepatitis B School Vaccine Program. Begun at Westdale Middle School, the program has become a model for the country.

The Cassidys established the Breast Cancer Fund with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to support ENCOREplus.

ENCOREplus, a YWCA project Laura Cassidy helped start, provides breast and cervical cancer screenings and health information for low-income medically underserved women.

Laura Cassidy, who provides discounted or pro bono care to indigent patients, helped organize Women in Need Gain Support (WINGS). WINGS promotes the dissemination of health information to women.

Bill Cassidy, a founding board member of Family Road of Greater Baton Rouge, was a "devoted and passionate board member who understood the families we serve," said Dena Morrison, executive director of the umbrella family agency.

Family Road's services include pre-natal education, parenting and health education and job information.

Cassidy was a year old when his parents moved to Baton Rouge from Chicago. He met Laura Layden of Mobile, Ala., while the two young doctors were interning in California.

The Cassidys say they learned volunteerism from their parents.

"My parents were active in FISH," Bill said. "I used to go with my mother to take people places."

"Definitely parents' examples on both sides of the family," Laura Cassidy said. "It's nice that we're like-minded that way."

Delores Littleton

Delores Littleton, 70, of New Roads reared two of her own children and "turned out" 30 foster children.

"My mother did this, too," said Littleton, who has six foster children living with her. "She took in every stray dog and cat in New Roads.

"I'm the daughter of a sharecropper. We were poor. I said when I was able I'd follow in my mama's footsteps. I'd help children who needed a home."

There have been as many as seven children in Littleton's home at one time.

"I have four bedrooms. We used the den," she said. "All the rooms had bunk beds."

While Littleton received money from the state for her foster children, she spent her own money to provide extras.

A teacher for 30 years, Littleton took in only school-age children until she retired in 1985. Her husband, Sammie, died suddenly that year.

Littleton began taking in younger children, including infants as young as a few days.

"It was a wonderful experience," said Eric Littleton, 40, Littleton's biological son. Littleton has a daughter, Katina, 30.

"It made me more of a family-oriented person," Eric said. "It was good growing up in a large family."

The Rev. Burnette Armstrong, 45, and her sister, Ruth Mae Belone, 47, went to live with Littleton when they were 7 and 8.

"Our mother died, leaving 8 children," said Armstrong.

"Were it not for her," Armstrong said, nodding at Littleton, "I don't know how we would have turned out."

"She took care of me," said Belone who lived with Littleton until she was 18.

"She married me off, gave me a big wedding."

Sandra Doty, 38, was 7 when her mother got sick. Doty and four siblings went to foster homes. Doty lived with Littleton for two years.

"She was strict and stern -- in a good way," Doty said.

Kenny and Melissa David

The Davids, Kenny and Melissa, both 41, knew before they married they'd have company wherever they lived.

"I knew when I was dating Kenny that he had a mentally retarded aunt and that we'd be responsible for her," Melissa said.

In 1990, the Davids sold their house to move in with Kenny's ailing grandparents to care for them and Kenny's aunt.

"As the oldest child of deaf parents, I was put in the role of the responsible one," said Kenny, who is dean of students at the Louisiana School for the Deaf.

"I've never been an only child," laughed daughter Meggan David, 16.

Over the last 20 years, the Davids have taken in 11 children and a single mother and her baby. Some of the foster children were deaf and had other disabilities.

Five years ago, the Davids took in a 4-year-old boy who'd been a ward of the state. The child is deaf and developmentally delayed with autistic tendencies.

"He stole our hearts," Melissa said. "He makes us smile every day."

The Davids make time for daughters Meggan and Gabrielle, who's about to turn 13, with what they call "Dad dates" and "Mom dates."

Sometimes, having foster brothers and sisters means Gabrielle has to share her room or move in with her sister.

"I don't mind," she said. "There's always someone to talk to."

Meggan and Gabrielle say they'll probably take in foster children when they start families of their own.

The $50-a-person, "Celebrate the Family" fund-raiser includes a silent auction and hors d'oeuvres provided by 10 Baton Rouge chefs and restaurants.

For reservations or information about Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge, call 225-924-0123.

Family Service is a private, nonprofit United Way agency. Services and programs include family counseling, parenting education, teen pregnancy prevention and education, HIV prevention, counseling and testing; Independent Living, a program that helps foster children make the transition from state care to self-sufficiency; and the Pennington Family Loan Program which makes loans to low-income families.

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