Clemson's Strong Communities project, led by Dr. Gary Melton, focused on changing the culture within target neighborhoods to one of mutual engagement and assistance — calling on traditional values to create the proverbial "village" to raise a child.
The Strong Communities vision was for "every child and every parent to be confident that someone will notice and someone will care whenever they have cause for joy, sorrow, or worry." The theory of change at work in this project was that once residents felt that their neighborhood was a place where families helped each other, and where it was expected both to ask for and offer help, they would be more likely to make wise decisions that enhance child safety.
Strong Communities targeted neighborhood institutions — schools, places of worship, health clinics, workplaces — as key players in supporting families and helping to reduce incidences of child abuse. Strong Communities focused on two broad components:
- Strengthening communities through the engagement of community outreach workers. Outreach workers gathered and educated groups of community leaders at every strata — from elected officials and clergy to fire fighters and civic club members — training them to be advocates and actors for child welfare within their communities.
- Providing direct assistance to the families of young children through a network of community volunteers. This included the Strong Families program, which worked to ensure the availability of a volunteer "Family Friend" to watch out for every family with a child under six in target communities. It also included the creation of Family Activity Centers that offered drop-in playgroups, parents' nights out, parent-child activities, primary social services, financial education and mentoring.
Within each of the areas mentioned above, the Strong Communities program workes through four phases. The first was raising awareness about child abuse as an important problem with opportunities for improvement. The second was mobilizing the commuity to become engaged in planning and preventing child maltreatment. Phase three involved increasing resources for families, and phase four involved institutionalizing resources in sustainable ways.
Overall, Strong Communities claimed several distinguishing factors, including: its focus on building "social capital" as the principal strategy in prevention of child maltreatment; its emphasis on primary prevention; its relevance to all young families; and, its incorporation of the assets found in primary community institutions, including some that usually are not directly involved in child protection.
Strong Communities, with its emphasis on mobilizing individuals and community-based organizations, showed impressive numbers with respect to engagement. More than 200 churches, 77 community organizations and 186 businesses were involved in the program by 2007. Nearly 5,000 volunteers (3.5 percent of the service area's population) contributed more than 43,000 hours of service from 2002-2007. More than 1,600 families had completed a Strong Communities enrollment form by the end of 2006.
However, The Duke Endowment's evaluators were unable to show a cause-and-effect relationship between the levels of participation in the Strong Communities program and outcomes. While there were definite positive changes in self-reported behaviors of parents, there was not a clear causal link between these activities and an emerging community ethos of reciprocal support.
The Strong Communities project, though successful in engaging and coordinating community volunteerism on behalf of families, did not appear to be able to meet the Endowment's objectives. Therefore, the Endowment made the difficult decision to discontinue funding for the Strong Communities program in 2009 and began working with the program to transition it to other partners.