ICAN keeps focus on families
In the mid-1990s, Oneida County’s Department of Social Services and Mental Health embarked on an ambitious program aimed at decreasing the number of out-of-home placements.
ICAN keeps focus on families
UTICA — In the mid-1990s, Oneida County’s Department of Social Services and Mental Health embarked on an ambitious program aimed at decreasing the number of out-of-home placements of children dealing with serious emotional issues; in 1997, the Integrated Community Alternatives Network (ICAN) was established to take on that specific assignment. Over time, the not-for-profit agency has expanded significantly, currently overseeing more than 20 varied programs that collectively address the full spectrum of age-related needs — from prenatal through end-of-life care — in six counties, including Oneida, and beyond.
As Steven Bulger, ICAN’s Chief Executive Officer/Executive Director, explains, “The family is the building block of society. Everything we do is geared toward keeping together the almost 2,000 families we serve daily, and the industry would agree that our over 90% success rate is impressive.” In fact, ICAN’s notable contribution to the community has so impressed the industry that in January, Excellus Blue Cross/Blue Shield awarded $90,000 to Utica’s Evelyn’s House, an ICAN program that provides temporary shelter and rapid rehousing for pregnant women and new mothers between the ages of 16 and 24.
In the coming months, ICAN anticipates expanding its influence by collaborating with existing agencies, taking on new territories, establishing innovative programs, and constructing new, conveniently located offices. Case in point: For close to 60 years, the exhibits in Utica’s Children’s Museum have entertained and educated vast numbers of youngsters. Recognizing the venue as an ideal location to publicize its services to young families in the community, ICAN entered into a managed services contract with the museum in 2017; three years later, the agency announced its plans to close the Main Street museum and create a new one at 106 Memorial Parkway in Utica. “Moving the museum will enhance an already family-friendly corridor of the city. The new museum will be a quality of life asset and will complement the incredible development taking place in the city and the region,” Bulger affirms.
Construction of the Family Resource Center, a combination of ICAN offices and museum space, began in October 2021, with ICAN staff members relocating to the new building a year later. Family-focused programs such as Healthy Families, community education and training, along with areas designated for supervised visitation, will occupy the first floor, with the agency’s and museum’s administration offices located on the third floor. The museum’s grand opening ceremony is slated for approximately one year from now; its exhibits will be displayed on the second floor.
Recognizing the importance physical fitness plays in fostering good mental health, ICAN renovated the former Rising Stars sports complex in Westmoreland and opened Elevate CNY in the 60,000-square-foot structure in November 2022. “The building still operates as a sports center and serves as a convenient avenue for us to share our resources and services with a larger portion of our community,” notes Bulger. A huge rise in interest in ICAN’s Healthy Family program, which helps families get ready to be parents by giving them support at home, has led the organization to open a satellite office in Amsterdam, in neighboring Montgomery County, later this year.
At times, a dire need in the community directs the agency’s plan of action. For example, the ongoing and consistent spate of gun violence has motivated ICAN to fully implement its SNUG (guns spelled backward) program, a joint venture with the state and the city of Utica. As Bulger points out, “We are putting boots on the ground by embedding staff within the city to reduce gun violence by mediating conflict with individuals at the highest risk of shooting or being shot.”
ICAN’s CEO recognizes that the success of the agency’s myriad programs relies greatly on the exceptional dedication and work ethic of its staff. Currently, ICAN employs more than 220 part-time and full-time workers, with an additional 275 subcontracted behavioral professionals from over 50 outsourcing agencies within the Independent Practice Association (IPA). Notably, in 2022, ICAN received the prestigious “Best Place to Work in Central New York” award, an honor based on anonymous employee surveys and bestowed on a non-profit or for-profit agency with more than 101 employees and located within a 16-county area. “The recognition is so special because a well-supported staff is the foundation on which our mantra of keeping families together can come to fruition,” Bulger proudly attests.
The agency’s services were especially in demand for children and teens during the COVID-19 pandemic, when social isolation, coupled with increased screen time required for at-home schooling, created “the perfect storm,” as Bulger, a Westmoreland School board member, describes it. “As a dad of two school-age children, I saw the need to find resources to help students cope and connect,” he relates, adding, “What makes us unique is our ability to coordinate many services to meet the social and emotional needs of families. If we are not equipped to provide a particular requirement, we help families navigate the system to identify the overwhelming available resources.”
ICAN’s synergistic methods define its mission: to connect individuals and families with services, empower them to advocate for their own needs, and eventually end long-term dependence on those services. Declares Bulger, “Stronger families create stronger communities, which lead to a more stable and vibrant future for the residents and the economy.”
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