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NOTE: as of April 17, 2007, the Free to Grow program has closed.
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Aspira de Puerto Rico

Aspira de Puerto Rico

The Compay program, developed in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, utilizes family-to-family support, based on the Latin concept of compadre (or godparents) as the essential building block of its substance abuse prevention program model.  Well-functioning families called Compay provide intensive support to substance abusing families or those at risk of substance abuse.  The Compay families have also emerged as leaders in a grassroots network of neighborhood groups who work in partnership with schools, municipal officials, substance abuse prevention and education programs, police, and local recreational organizations to improve the community.

Core Strategies

Building a Model on Cultural Foundations

As a model based on the Latino concept of "compadre" or godparents, the Compay intervention seeks to broaden the reach of the kinds of intimate and enduring relationships that compadres build with their godchildren to the broader health and well-being of families within the community.  Like the relationship between godchild and compadre, the relationship between Compay and the families to whom they provide support is intended to be a special one one that enriches and enhances the lives of everyone involved.  Compay families see their role as an honored one, and develop social and emotional bonds with their assigned family that provide a strong foundation of trust for their work together.  Thus, by building on this important cultural concept, the model taps into a deeply cherished and respected tradition that resonates with the families and communities targeted to participate, and that acknowledges and affirms the very unique place accorded those who enter into this role within the community. 

Implementing A Developmental Process for Family and Community Strengthening

Acknowledging that community-building first requires strengthening families' sense of self-efficacy and sense of belonging to the community, intensive family to family support is the first step in this primary prevention model.  A unique feature of the approach is that all family members are involved in the support process, with adults, children and extended family members participating in a diverse range of educational, social, and support activities together.  The start-up of the Compay family intervention also provides an important opportunity to reach out and build relationships with those community stakeholders and residents who will be critical to the project's more formal community-building activities.  Relationships with local churches, schools, social service agencies, municipal officials, treatment, and prevention organizations are initiated through the identification, training and support of Compay and high risk families to be targeted for the intervention, providing a foundation for the community-focused prevention activities that follow in the next phase of implementation.

Shifting the Approach To Help:  The Compay Intervention

For Head Start staff, the Compay intervention represents a significant shift, as some social services staff move from directly working with families, to providing support and supervision to Compay families - who spend a minimum of four hours a week with their assigned families over a 12-18 month period.  The Compay intervention targets high-risk families who are assessed to exhibit strengths as well a willingness to participate.  The Compay intervention is not used with those families identified to be in crisis, or requiring significant professional mental health support.  Social service staff reach out into the community to identify and recruit Compay families and provide extensive training and supervision to them throughout the intervention period.  Family profiles help staff match families with similar family structures and with potential compatibilities.   Special assessment instruments also help to identify the areas in which the Compay will offer assistance and support.  These areas might include improved access to and utilization of health care, strengthened family management practices, assisting families with meeting basic housing and food needs, providing support in meeting educational or job goals, or encouraging family members to seek substance abuse treatment.  Social service staff craft detailed family service plans in collaboration with both the participant and Compay families, and work with Compay families to assist them in helping their assigned families reach their goals.  A consultant psychologist provides back up and support to Compay families and social service staff when issues requiring mental health expertise and intervention arise.  The approach provides a unique opportunity to reach out and support those families traditionally suspicious of social service workers and institutions, yet willing to accept assistance from their neighbors.  Compay families also report that their involvement in helping others strengthens their familial relationships as well, providing an additional benefit from the intervention.

Maintaining Support

As families receiving support by the Compay reach their goals, they are offered the opportunity to join support groups co-led by Head Start social service staff and Compay families.  The groups provide a vehicle to discuss issues of concern raised in their daily lives, as well as to continue to receive assistance and linkage to resources through a more informal context. Comprised of 4-5 families, the support groups link families with other families who have participated in the program, as well as with the Compay families who live within their community, thus strengthening the bonds among neighbors and providing additional opportunities to strengthen the informal social support networks within the community.

From Family Strengthening to Community Strengthening

As Compay families work with their assigned families, their activities provide a broad range of opportunities to interact and become familiar with community resources, as well as to get to know the leadership within their community.  Efforts to secure health insurance cards for their assigned families teach them how to leverage assistance within the local health system.  Activities to improve parent relations with school officials raise their visibility among teachers and administrators, and make them identifiable as individuals willing to reach out and provide leadership on issues such as truancy and homework compliance.  Attempts to encourage a drug or alcohol addicted parent to enter treatment bring them into contact with community-based treatment facilities, and teach them how these systems work.  Thus, over the course of their family support work, Compay families build important leadership skills, as well as relationships with key community stakeholders.  Based upon this foundation, many Compay families begin to expand their role, emerging as prominent leaders in the establishment and implementation of the project's community-building activities. 

Establishing A Network for Community Action

Like the project's family strengthening work, the evolution of the model's community building work is developmental, with incremental steps building one upon another.  Selected Compay work with staff to reach out and identify other community leaders interested in assisting in the creation of a neighborhood-based community-building infrastructure.  These identified leaders establish small neighborhood groups, designed to bring residents together to identify primary prevention issues of common concern, and to reach out to their neighbors to get their input on community problems to be addressed.  Head Start staff provides support and training to the leadership of these neighborhood groups through bi-weekly leaders' meetings, which provide technical assistance and support on identified issues.  The leaders' groups also provide an initial forum for residents to bring identified issues to the attention of community stakeholders, who are invited to attend leaders' groups to provide information and to hear residents' concerns.  As this grassroots leadership structure strengthens, a community association is established, allowing residents across neighborhoods to work together with community stakeholders to address community-wide issues.  Representatives from the schools, social service agencies, youth serving agencies, local churches, health agencies, and community-based organizations who live in the community participate in the community association, which operates with formal by-laws and meets monthly.

Linking Hands with Community Stakeholders to Initiate Change

Throughout the evolution and development of the project's community-building infrastructure, Head Start staff, as well as leadership of their grantee agency, play a critical role in brokering and engaging community stakeholders on behalf of the efforts of residents.  While working to build greater and greater levels of resident autonomy in carrying out the activities of the community association, program staff skillfully utilize their relationships and access to the local power structure to move identified issues of concern forward.  This sensitive balance of knowing how/when to use power and established relationships to open doors lies at the very heart of the success of the model's community-building activities.


copyright 2008 Free To Grow
Free To Grow is a national program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University.