"I am an empath in every aspect of my life."
As a young girl growing up, Jackie Ford's grandmother donated to the Covenant House non-profit organization in New York City. The program's brochure rested on a table in her home with a picture of a young brown eyed girl with tears in her eye on the cover.
That picture changed Jackie's life.
"I knew since seventh grade that I wanted to work with abused and neglected children," Jackie stated. In that school year, she wrote a research paper on child abuse and experienced a neighborhood child being raised by parents struggling with an alcohol addiction.
"I am an empath in every aspect of my life."
For almost two years, Jackie applied to work in the Department of Children and Families. She still remembers preparing for the job interview. "I did a trial run and drove to the office the day before I was going to be interviewed," she stated. The interview was cancelled but after a year of waiting, her journey with the Agency began.
Over 30 years later, Jackie still brings with her that same energy, determination, and creativity to support those she serves as she did over three decades earlier. "The work is so rewarding. You have the ability to impact a family's life," she stated.
Jackie is the Community Outreach Coordinator in the Bureau of External Affairs. "I am charged with helping to change the narrative, helping to change the perception of how our community sees our department and how the community sees our families. I am humbled by the opportunity to highlight the army of dedicated staff who work tirelessly to strengthen our families, keep them together, and find ways to support them and celebrate their successes."
She has been at the forefront of innovative programs which are now embedded in communities, and which have gained national attention.
The first was in 2012, when she had the idea to rent a room at a house in North Haven to establish a setting where the foster care division could hold open houses for potential foster parents and where 1:1 interviews could take place.
In 2016, she established the first DCF community center in the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford. Her vision was now to use a donated commercial space to recruit foster and adoptive families. It received national attention with each television channel in Connecticut attending the kickoff event.
Using her well established relationships in the community, Jackie established the Doors to Hope and Healing TV show in 2018. Over 75 episodes have been aired which include interviews with a diverse group of individuals each month. The show reaches over 60,000 homes via the cable network. "We have changed the narrative and misconceptions by educating our viewers about the many facets of child welfare work. We have given our families, children, and community providers a platform to tell their stories, celebrate their accomplishments, and support other families," Jackie explained.
Two months before the COVID-19 pandemic, another community center was established in the Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester. "We created this location with prevention in mind. To dispel the myths of the agency and have a space where families can simply come and receive information at any time of the day," she explained.
She was not done.
Jackie envisioned creating a central space to collect toys, gifts, and bike donations, where families receiving DCF services could come together and “shop.” Thoughts of families stopping by, taking their sweet time choosing gifts that they knew their children would love, and personalizing that experience for each family became a reality.
In 2021, the Olive Branch Toy and Gift Shop was established - in 9 days - just in time for the holidays. "Knowing that the holidays can be stressful, we hoped to alleviate stress by inviting families to shop for free, wrap their gifts and leave the store with dignity, knowing they had a hand in creating joy for their children," Jackie explained.
"The Olive Branch became a place where community members provided emotional support and healing for our families, offering resources that reached far beyond the walls of the shop, such as pro bono legal representation, employment, and friendship."
Jackie's focus on preventing child abuse and neglect has also led her to collaborating with the Waterbury Police Department to send local families to camp for a weekend - not just the children - but the whole family.
Jackie's contacts across Connecticut have resulted in donations of gifts, clothing and other items for years. When asked to collect stuffed teddy bears for children who have been adopted, within weeks she had 1,000 donated which even saw her coming home to packages left at her doorstep from people she never met.
She is a fierce advocate to protect animals and has been on the forefront of the Department's collaboration with the Department of Agriculture to establish cross-reporting requirements for child abuse and animal abuse.
"I know the tireless work our staff does. I want people to see our Agency and our work the way I do," she emphatically states.
This month, she received the 2023 Children's Bureau Champion Award for Building Community Capacity. "When I originally saw the e-mail, I thought it was spam," she stated. It was the letter received from Aysha E. Schomburg, J.D., the associate commissioner in the Children’s Bureau in the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, which made it a reality.
"I am humbled and honored to receive this award," she stated. "This is a great opportunity to talk about what our agency does each and every day."
"We are often perceived as powerful and authoritative, and our work in the child welfare system can be frightening for families. This opportunity to extend homage to our families is a true privilege."
Thank you to Jackie Ford for your tireless efforts to continue to promote the great work of our department by enriching the lives of countless children and families.