Community Catalyst: Ann R. Smith, JD, MBA (AFCAMP)
“Our combined potential is limited only by our collective vision."
Even the first time you meet Ann Smith, the executive director of African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities, Inc. (AFCAMP), you immediately sense her passion for her work and the value she places on interpersonal relationships. A close community partner with Wheeler, Ann recalls that one of her most meaningful experiences working together came in a time of great uncertainty for AFCAMP and the families it serves.
In 2016, the organization unexpectedly learned that it had to move from its office space at the Office of Protection and Advocacy.
“We were literally without a home,” Smith recalls. “I ran into Elisabeth Cannata [Wheeler vice president of community-based family services and practice innovation] at a meeting and told her what was going on. She asked if she could tell [Wheeler President and CEO] Susan Walkama, and I said, 'sure,' not really thinking much about it. I don’t think two hours passed before Susan called me and said, ‘I don’t know where or how, but we’ll find a place for you.’ We were in a time of very great need and our partners came to our aid.”
AFCAMP moved to Wheeler’s campus on 43–49 Woodland Street in Hartford, and is now permanently housed in the historic Perkins-Clark Estate at 49 Woodland Street. The already-close relationship between AFCAMP and Wheeler has blossomed into a hand-in-hand partnership, benefiting both organizations.
“One of the things I admire about Wheeler and your team and leadership is the vision. We sit together and we talk about the vision for this campus. There are so many forces moving us all toward greater integration of care across the continuum and providing the necessary supports for clients and community.” She says. “The opportunity here is so well-aligned; AFCAMP empowers much of the same client base that Wheeler serves through its Family Health & Wellness Center. Our combined potential is limited only by our collective vision. ”
AFCAMP’s creation dates to a 1999 needs assessment of the African Caribbean American community in Hartford. The results revealed a profound need for education services for parents of children with disabilities. Parents had significantly limited knowledge or no knowledge of parental or student rights and lacked information about the availability of services for their children. Little or no information was being disseminated by schools, agencies or advocacy organizations to these families and the larger community regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other protections.
Many families who contact AFCAMP need not only special education services, but are trying to navigate health, child welfare and the juvenile justice systems. AFCAMP provides family engagement, training, and advocacy services to promote better outcomes for parents and youth involved with those systems.
The two organizations first engaged around 2006 when the Department of Children and Families was adopting the “differential response” approach to families in the state’s child welfare system. Over the years, opportunities for AFCAMP and Wheeler to collaborate increased and the partnership grew. Smith says a pivotal moment came in 2013, when AFCAMP and Wheeler jointly developed a family engagement grant proposal.
“As we walked out of the bidders’ conference, my team said to me, ‘We should work with Wheeler on this. That proposal would really stand out.’ I had intended to reach out to Susan later that afternoon, but she called me first. It was a wonderfully successful collaboration. I’ve continued to be impressed by the vision, compassion and talent of the people at Wheeler.”
Ann says that AFCAMP’s new home provides a unique and powerful synergy for even greater collaboration.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of two organizations that work well together and have demonstrated they are able to make a positive impact on the lives of the people we serve, not only by virtue of the partnership but each organization’s individual strengths.”
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