Randi Rubin Rodriguez

Kids on the Block

Just north from where Dixwell Avenue meets Goffe and Whalley, a long, red brick building with blue window frames keeps an otherwise low profile. What signage it has is oblique: a marbled stone towards the center of the facade reads “With each new child… the world begins anew;” a cornerstone low to the ground reads “Families for ’r kids.”

’r kids, it turns out, is the name of the organization that does its work on the other side of those bricks and stones and windows. ’r kids focuses on the family—the bedrock, in-it-for-the-long-haul kind, providing “permanency support services” to those who’ve entered into the state’s Department of Children and Families system. Among many other things, this means maintaining facilities—playrooms, a library, cribs, a changing station, a kitchen—where new or distressed parents can learn to become parents, and where distressed kids can be kids.

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It was a freezing-cold night in 1996 when the nonprofit’s married co-founders Randi Rubin Rodriguez (pictured above) and Sergio Rodriguez opened their Westville home to three dozen foster and adoptive parents, pediatricians, child welfare workers, women in recovery and attorneys looking to determine how they could help “sustain family integrity for families impacted by substance abuse and violence,” as the website puts it. That was a foundation. Later, after receiving a starter grant of $3,500 from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and staging a series of five racquetball tournaments (Sergio is a big fan of the sport), it took ’r kids Family Center about a year to raise $1 million for building its 4,300-square-foot headquarters, reclaiming previously abandoned plots that’d attracted crime and vice, with an additional $700,000 earmarked for programming.

The goal was to create a supportive environment for children to spend time with their parents when they’ve been separated by difficult circumstances. Arranged in neat offices intermingled with service facilities, a diverse staff, now numbering 12, has helped about 2,500 children and adults in need of affordable and safe housing, day care, medical issues, clean bedding, heat and utilities, employment, education, legal aid and… well, you get the idea.

The building’s grand opening occurred in June 2003. Ten years later, a grand block party was held that closed Dixwell Avenue, from Webster to Broadway, with free food, Radio Disney reps, forty community exhibitors, games and lots of citizens and politicians being honored for their support—people like mayor Toni Harp, herself an adoptee.

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Challenging one of the stigmas associated with distressed families, Randi says, “It’s not about kids not being loved. 97.6% of parents come to visit at their scheduled appointments.” If parental rights do have to be terminated, ’r kids assists in cementing the establishment of the new family while maintaining a good relationship with the original family unit. ’r kids is frequently involved with pre-adoptive parents and work hard, Randi says, “to ensure the two mommies are friends. I’ve seen amazing relationships develop.” While the statewide reunification rate is about 50%, ’r kids’s is significantly higher—pushing 80%, according to the nonprofit’s website.

’r kids also gets its families out and about, putting on annual Lighthouse Point beach barbecues and outings at Sports Center of Connecticut in Shelton, where families can enjoy activities like mini-golf, batting cages and bowling. The value of such outings can be seen in an anecdote: one nine-year-old was overheard saying, “I never had so much fun with my dad in my life.” Other efforts include providing Thanksgiving food baskets courtesy of BL Companies of Meriden; giving kids new and comfy PJs; and throwing a Christmas party provided by Yale-New Haven Hospital. The goal for the holidays, in particular, is to create happy memories.

The next project on the organization’s busy plate is literally to “Raise the Roof.” ’r kids has outgrown its one-story complex and is working on adding second and third floors. Artist’s renderings, floor plans and cost estimates are in; now it’s a matter of raising the money necessary to raise that roof.

It’s roof overhead, and for some of the most vulnerable citizens of Connecticut, it can mean a roof overhead, and a family to share it with.

’r kids Family Center
45 Dixwell Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 8:30am-5pm, Fri 8:30am-3pm
(203) 865-5437

Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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