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F.I.S.H. provides social services, a helping hand for clients

By Staff | Dec 9, 2015

Social services and providing a helping hand are two very important components of what F.I.S.H. offers its clients on a daily basis.

F.I.S.H. unveiled a new brand identity that spells out the acronym – F for food programs; I for island based; S for social services and H for helping hands – in an effort to educate the community of everything the organization offers.

Program Director Christine Swiersz, who began working as a social worker six years ago for F.I.S.H., loves that she and Assistant Program Director Jessi Zeigler can answer and address the needs of the community as they see them. Due to that ability, F.I.S.H. currently offers 48 programs and services that revolve around the brand identity.

Programs and services are added and removed due to the number of people stopping by F.I.S.H. and calling about the same issues. Once offered and it is not being as utilized as hoped, the program will be taken off the books, so the organization can put their focus on something different that could benefit their clients.

“Our outreach is to anyone in the community that would need assistance either with social services, or anything to do with daily functioning and the needs that individuals, or a family might have,” Swiersz said. “Or emergency services, which include emergency rent, or mortgage payment, emergency utility payment, which includes electric, water and sewer. Any of the basic needs of life. We do not assist with things like phone and cable because you do not have to have them to maintain your lifestyle for you, or your family.”

F.I.S.H. offers its clients a hand-up, rather than a handout, so their situation can be improved upon.

“We are not a Band-Aid,” she said.

The organization focuses on helping individuals and families that either live full-time, or work full-time on the island. Those that do not fit into those guidelines are referred to an agency in Lee County that can be of assistance.

“Everything we offer, all of our programs, are always open to the community and we don’t charge for any of our services,” Swiersz said.

Among those they help are middle class people that may have fallen into a health crisis, personal crisis such as a divorce, or a loss of job.

“If someone that comes to us with a financial need, rent for a month, they have to go through a rigorous process,” she said.

The process involves looking at the individual, or family’s income and paid out expenditures. F.I.S.H. looks at this because it helps in determining what is happening financially to have caused, or impacted their situation. The client also has to provide such documentation as their income tax for the last two years, a copy of their last three months of banking statements and the last three pay stubs for anyone in the household. Documentation for any additional means, such as child support, or food stamps, also have to be provided.

“We have to see everything to know what a person is bringing in and what their expenditures are. We help them look at those expenditures and also look at their budgeting because if they are in a crisis they need assistance to formulate a budget,” Swiersz said.

The meeting between the social workers and clients typically last about two hours.

The two social workers see their clients on more than one occasion while helping them become stabilized through a working relationship.

The great part of the “helping hands” portion of F.I.S.H., Swiersz said is the range in ages they are able to assist. Currently their youngest client is a two-month old whose family needs assistance in finding services to help their child who is experiencing developmental issues and delays that were found upon birth. Their oldest client is 99 years old.

“This type of social work involves everybody,” she said.

One of the ways the organization offers a hand up is through employment assistance. The assistance comes in such forms as employment referrals on and off island, help with writing resumes, practice job interviewing skills, as well as follow-up while seeking employment.

Swiersz said they work very closely with employers on the island, resulting on occasion to leads for positions that have not yet been advertised.

“They realize that we will work to provide a good referral and we will not just provide anybody,” she said. “We have grown a lot of relationships and when its time to add additional staff, they will contact us personally.”

A budgeting class is offered once a month by a bank vice president who offers information about budgeting and rebuilding credit. The first portion of the workshop is basic education, while the second part offers one-on-one with the vice president and client of what measures they took last month to improve their finances. Swiersz said the instructor spends time looking at where the client can tweak and improve their situation.

“She is very down to earth and people feel very comfortable with her,” she said.

Education about food and nutrition are also among programs offered at F.I.S.H. Swiersz said the program is for kids and their guardian at St. Michaels. A nutritionist from Florida Gulf Coast University teaches those in attendance about good eating habits, what to look for when making breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the end of the program, the kids cook a meal.

Every Wednesday, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. a beginner and advanced ESOL class is offered to those who need assistance with speaking English. Childcare is offered during the hour.

“It is not necessarily that they are illegal. They have Green Cards and they are working here, but they have to learn English,” Swiersz said. “We are growing. People bring their family member, or friends.”

Due to the need F.I.S.H. is seeing, two new programs will be offered next year – a grief support workshop and a six week course with Lee Memorial regarding long-term illnesses.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.