As the Thomson High School prom rolled around last year, one student wondered just how he'd get the right look for the annual event.
He couldn't afford to buy a new suit or rent a tuxedo. So, he stopped by the clothes closet at McDuffie County Partners For Success. Minutes later, he had a dark suit in hand. It was slightly loose-fitting, but he couldn't have been prouder, said Miriam Smith, executive director of the non-profit organization.
"Usually, we aren't outfitting people for the prom," she said, walking through an upstairs floor full of racks and stacks of clothes. "We try to have the items on hand for those families that are in need of clothes. They may have had a fire, or just fallen on hard times. Either way, we are here to help them with basic needs."
But the clothes closet -- filled with items donated by the McDuffie County community -- is just part of the services offered by McDuffie County Partners For Success. It's the collaborative organization for the county, which means it works with other local agencies, including the local Housing Authority, Department of Family and Children Services, and the school system to ensure that services are not being duplicated while helping to improve families, produce better students and build a stronger community.
"Most of the families we work with are referred to us by DFACS or the school system," Mrs. Smith said. "However, we would rather begin working with those families before they reach the point of having to be sent to us. We are always looking for new ways to reach families in need. For example, if a family does contact us about receiving help from the clothes closet or Pencils and Partners, we then identify additional needs."
McDuffie County Partners For Success was formed in 1999 as a partnership between the local branches of Communities in Schools and Family Connection. The organization is a member of the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, the largest collaborative group in the nation. Communities in Schools is the largest dropout prevention program in the nation. Less than 45 counties in the state of Georgia have a Communities in Schools program. The Partners' office is located on Whiteoak Road in front of the middle school.
"We encourage people to stop by our office if they need help or just to see what we are all about," Mrs. Smith said.
The organization continues to provide various programs, including mentoring coordination for each McDuffie County school; efforts to increase graduation rates; parenting workshops and classes; domestic and substance abuse prevention; in-home visitation to work directly with families; a professional clothes closet; providing work experience; and a teen mother support group.
"Our mission is clear: Create a quality of life in our community that supports and encourages the development of healthy, stable families," Mrs. Smith said. "Our work begins with the parents long before babies are born and we continue working with them until after the babies grow up and have their own children."
McDuffie County Partners For Success also coordinates a home visitation program, which serves 30 families at any given time, with 15 families each assigned to Family Support Educators Fran Evans and Gail Taylor.
"We work with families on things like improving education, budgeting, resume writing, job assistance, work ethic, life skills and setting goals," Mrs. Smith said. "Then, we help them work to achieve those goals."
Mrs. Smith said it was heart-breaking to watch recent news coverage of the South Carolina mother accused of killing her two children and then driving them into a river.
"All I kept hearing was how this woman felt like she had nowhere she could turn to ask for help," Mrs. Smith said. "I don't want anyone in our community to ever feel that way. We are here to help them, and they can always call on us."
In recent years, Partners For Success also began reaching out into the community through specific activities. For example, the organization took a large group of students to Atlanta in 2009. They also provided more than 26,000 books to local students and schools.
Earlier this year, the organization provided school supplies, backpacks and a pair of tennis shoes to more than 250 local students. The Pencils and Partners drive garnered support from dozens of local residents and several businesses and organizations.
But one of the most special events for Mrs. Smith was Santa's visit last year.
On Christmas Eve, Mrs. Smith, Santa and a few friends and volunteers travelled to several McDuffie County neighborhoods to distribute toys and other items to over 1,000 children. It was all a surprise, and Mrs. Smith said she'd always remember the looks on the faces of the families they helped.
"It was such a success, and we are hoping to do it again this year," she said. "We've already started taking donations of toys and items children would like to receive for Christmas. We know that with the support of the McDuffie County community, we can make this happen and make Christmas a little brighter for some of the folks in our town who really need that."
To donate to the PFS Christmas event, volunteer to spend the day helping distribute items, donate items to help local families, or to mentor a student in each local school, call the PFS office at 706-595-3112.