Helping families in a complex world

Helping families in a complex world

Some good news emerged recently from the annual report on the well-being of America’s children.

Teen pregnancy is down, continuing a long-term trend. Binge drinking among high school students has dropped. More children have health insurance, and the percentage of teens smoking is the lowest since 1980.

But 21 percent of all children still live in poverty, and nearly a fifth are obese.

There are plenty of challenges facing American families, from social media and technology to income disparities, says Pampered Chef founder Doris Kelley Christopher, who established a University of Illinois program to help build strong families.Blog Photo

“I’ve always been a very, very strong believer in simplicity of family as the basic unit in our society,” she said. “I think life has gotten to be much more complex. I really do feel that understanding how to make things work as a family is more important than ever.”

Christopher was in town for the 10th anniversary of Doris Kelley Christopher Hall, home to the UI’s Family Resiliency Center in Urbana. Kelley, a UI graduate, and her husband established the program in 2000 with a $500,000 gift and later provided $10 million for the building.

From research on obesity and family nutrition to support for children with autism, the center reaches across the country and beyond U.S. borders.

“I think it has been more impactful than we could have imagined,” Christopher said.

Christopher particularly likes the observation suite, which is designed to look like a home. Researchers can watch families interact at mealtimes around a dining room table or play games or do homework together in a comfortable, homelike setting that “sets people at ease,” she said.Blog Photo

She decided to fund the new building in 2002 after touring the program’s former observation room, in a basement where researchers had to sit in the furnace room to watch.

When Director Barbara Fiese, who studies family mealtime, came to the UI in 2007 to interview at the new building, “I thought I had walked into heaven.”

As hoped, the center has pulled together researchers from across campus who engage with families in some way, with 31 faculty affiliates from 14 disciplines at the UI’s Urbana and Chicago campuses.

“It’s that interaction that’s really the magic,” Christopher said.

They’ve teamed up to address some tough family issues, from preventing childhood obesity to reducing hunger:

— The Strong KIDS program, funded by the National Dairy Council, is following 440 families, studying their food environment, growth and diet during a child’s first five years, from sleep habits to breast-feeding. Now in its third year, it’s meant to see how dietary habits get established from birth.

— It partners with the Illinois Children’s Environmental Health Center to reduce kids’ exposure to environmental toxins. The Family Resiliency Center runs community outreach, trying to teach child-care providers and families about the effect of toxins on children’s brain health — suggesting they use glass baby bottles instead of plastic, for example, and be careful about the toys and art supplies they use.

— Its “Mealtime Minutes” reach more than 200 million households a year. The public service announcements depict challenges that families face at mealtimes, from picky eating to turning off media during meals.

— The center works with UI Extension to promote healthy nutrition and active living through Abriendo Caminos, a program for Spanish-speaking families in Illinois, Iowa, Texas and Puerto Rico. The $3.5 million project originated with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with support from the Christopher Foundation’s Food and Family Program; it’s now funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

— A project recently launched in Jamaica looks at the impact of American food advertising on adolescent fast-food consumption, led by Gail Ferguson, an assistant professor in human development and family studies, and Michelle Nelson, a professor of advertising. Ferguson, who is from Jamaica, studies how cultural identity and behavior, including eating habits, are affected by exposure to other cultures; Nelson studies how families consume advertising and how that affects their food choices. The project is funded by the National Institutes of Health but had a seed grant through the Food and Family program.

The Family Resiliency Center also houses the UI Autism Program, part of a statewide network, which provides free training and resources to more than 4,000 professionals and parents each year.Blog Photo

Director Linda Tortorelli said the move to Christopher Hall has provided stability for the program and a “great environment” for working with overwhelmed families who come from “every walk of life.”

“Often it’s their first stop after their child’s been diagnosed. They’re edgy, they’re anxious,” she said. “Many times they have commented, ‘This is so nice, it doesn’t feel clinical, it just feels welcoming and homey.’ ”

Fiese remembers walking in one day to see Tortorelli surrounded by four Amish women reviewing a calendar of activities for a teenage girl with autism in their community. At the time, all she was doing was flipping through a phone book endlessly. Tortorelli taught them how to use objects and pictures to communicate with her and provided teaching materials. After a few visits, they decided to start a program to help other young adults with disabilities in the Amish community.

Fiese said the center has much more work to do.

“Fundamentally, the problems we’re addressing haven’t been solved yet,” she said.

Christopher said technology, social media and the wealth of activities available to children place added pressures on families, much more so than when she was raising her two daughters.

“It was more metered. Today, there’s so much, and it almost becomes a little bit competitive,” said Christopher, who has four grandchildren. “Anything we can do to help families navigate the path is important.”

She also pointed to the gap between families in affluence and poverty.

“The disparities in our country, and right here in our backyard, are things that we really need to pay attention to,” Fiese said, from food insecurity to poor health. “These are things that we can actually make an appreciable difference in.”


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Contact her at 217-351-5226, or, or leave a comment below.


Top: Doris Kelley Christopher, right, talks with Barbara Fiese, director of the UI's Family Resiliency Center, during an event at Christopher Hall on Oct. 7, 2016. Robin Scholz/News-Gazette

Middle: Participants gather around the dining room table in Christopher Hall's family suite during a "Fun with Brothers and Sisters" research program on Nov. 11, 2008. Robin Scholz/News-Gazette

Bottom: Doris Kelley Christopher Hall in Urbana. Photo provided.


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