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Washtenaw United: Ypsilanti's Family Empowerment Program is building foundational support

Christa Hughbanks
Christa Hughbanks
Christa Hughbanks


39-year-old, Female, American with multiple ethnic backgrounds. Born in Ypsilanti, MI and grew up in the city of Ypsilanti. Lived throughout Ypsilanti until early adulthood. Also lived in Jackson, MI and Atlanta, GA. Graduated from with BSW from the school of Social Work at Eastern Michigan University and with MSW from the school of Social Work at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). Started working with the Family Empowerment Program (FEP) when the program had been fairly new and resided only at the Hamilton Crossing Apartments. Now in the position of Mental Health profession with FEP and office is located at the New Parkridge Apartments.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair, and I welcome you to another edition of Washtenaw United. This is our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity in our community. And today, the focus is on mental health and empowerment. If you look at lack of access to treatment and insufficient investment in mental health services, you find a myriad of ramifications from education struggles and failures to addictions, to homelessness, to the ongoing pipeline into the judicial and correction system--too costly in a variety of ways. Our guest today is boots on the ground in the realm of mental health services. Christa Hughbanks is a mental health service coordinator at the Family Empowerment Program. Christa, thank you for making time to spend with us today.

Christa Hughbanks: You're welcome.

David Fair: Would you characterize mental health as a community crisis?

Christa Hughbanks: Yes, I would.

David Fair: And why so? What in your observations are you seeing that makes it extend beyond the personal and the familial and to a community issue?

Christa Hughbanks: So, I feel that, in the community, there's a stigma. And there's a lack of trust for these services in the way that people in vulnerable communities are treated in the health care system. And then, in the mental health care system, there's a lot of gray areas that I know that a lot of professionals strive to try to break those barriers, so people are better able to access mental health and to educate themselves on what that looks like.

David Fair: You mentioned stigma, and it has long been an issue. While it is beginning to change in some portions of our community, it does pose a barrier when someone wants to reach out and ask for and receive help. How do you overcome stigma as an issue when you encounter it through your work in the Family Empowerment Program?

Christa Hughbanks: So, I try to provide resources that familiarize residents with what they may be experiencing. And so, I put out a lot of brochures or pamphlets in the lobby of their leasing office, so that they're able to access that information. And then, if they have any questions, they can follow up with me. I also coordinate services where I bring in organizations, one, such as NAMI. They are a mental health organization that works on breaking the stigma in the community. They come out, and they do presentations, and they also have a lot of volunteer and peers that tell their story. And so, our residents are able to attend those meetings that we have and relate to some of the people that are speaking about their experience with mental health.

David Fair: Beyond the personal barrier of stigma, there are systemic barriers to accessing mental health services. Where do you see that most in play in your work?

Christa Hughbanks: I feel like insurance. I feel like I look at government insurance as like a pretty good insurance because it's definitely reliable, billable, and it has a variety of services that it covers. And that the government insurance I'm speaking of is Medicaid.

David Fair: Mm hmm.

Christa Hughbanks: And I feel like a lot of people are treated differently. I know, from my experience, when my insurance changes to a work-related insurance, something I get through work, my treatment and services are different. But when it's Medicaid, it's like there's nothing accessible. There's waitlists. But the dynamics change with the different type of insurance. Things are accessible there. You know, people are more assisting you with your needs.

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Christa Hughbanks from the Family Empowerment Program continues on 89 one WEMU. So, as we talk about this in the work we do, I want to get a better understanding of exactly what the functions of the Family Empowerment Program are. As I understand it, including yourself, it's a collective of six community-based social workers working primarily in southern Ypsilanti. How many are currently utilizing the program's services?

Christa Hughbanks: So, we have two sections of all these houses that you define. One is under our strong housing properties and one is under our new Parkridge. The new Parkridge is our smaller property. And I'm excited at the Parkridge site. So, on a day-to-day basis, I may work with, I would say if I'm looking at it from that experience, I'm probably meeting with about 50% on my site of resonance when it comes to mental health accessible across all sites. And so, I would say about it's probably 25% that people who will reach out to me and want to connect to some mental health services and try to build from there. I have people who would like to talk to me. And so, I am skilled and trained to assess or provide them with just a quick crisis or something to get them started, to build that trust, to go ahead and connect to the long term services that they need. But it depends on their experience when you do connect them. So, I really try to make efforts to assist people until they're able to build that trust, so that they can become independent in how they utilize those services. But I spend a lot of time trying to educate people in and reassure them that the service could benefit them with their mental health. But it's hard when you're being mistreated or you're still struggling with your own mental health. And part of it could be the impacts of trust, you know, and that can look in different forms in mental health.

David Fair: Everything that describing sounds a lot to me like trauma in one form or another. Is trauma a significant player in a barrier to personal and family progress?

Christa Hughbanks: Absolutely. Absolutely. It is.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And today, we're talking mental health with Christa Hughbanks from the Ypsilanti-based Family Empowerment Program. Christa, you were born and raised in Ypsilanti, and how much did being raised where you work play into recognize a community need and pursuing a career to address it?

Christa Hughbanks: A lot. A lot played into it. My own exposures. The crying. The lack of resources. I would say growing up, there are really a limited amount of resources. I think Washtenaw County has came a long way with the resources they have, but who they're accessible to is the major challenge. And I know growing up, it was quite difficult to build from resources. And so, I think that when children see their parents struggling or trying to make ends meet, they don't have the knowledge to know what's really happening. So, they make light of what's going on. But, once you're exposed to the violence, abuse, drugs, there's a survival coping mechanism that you build at such a young age. And, unfortunately, a lot of these children don't get the tools that they need because their parents don't have the tools that they need. And so, that's what we really strive to do is help families at the Family Empowerment Program to better access these resources, advocate for themselves, have support as they're doing it, so that they're validated in what they're saying their needs are and that people are listening to those needs. So, growing up in Ypsilanti, for me, I think I became a social worker at four years old because I learned how to advocate or access resources for myself or my family.

David Fair: And having to do so at such a young age is a trauma all its own. Obviously, racial inequity and income disparity play a role in the community of people and families who are serving. Do you see the path to overcoming the barriers that you had to work through that the people you're working with have to work through, over, and around?

Christa Hughbanks: Yes, I do. I do see, I think, the more you advocate for yourself, the more independent you come. I work outside of here as a behavioral health and substance abuse therapist. So, I teach many of my clients that the skills that they need to go in and instruct professionals on how to service them. I think it's very important not to be co-dependent on professionals, but to talk about what you know about yourself, talk about your history, and kind of guide those people--the professionals--into doing their research because that's their job when they're servicing you and treating you. And no one knows you best but you, especially when it comes to mental health. But it's hard to share when you don't trust. And so, like, working on building that trust or taking control of managing your mental health or your physical health, you know, just managing your life. And I think that's a very important quality that we could all utilize in ourselves.

David Fair: Well said. And I think that given our time constraints, that's the perfect place to bring our conversation to an end for today. Thank you so much for your time, Christa. I appreciate it.

Christa Hughbanks: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

David Fair: That is Christa Hughbanks. She is mental health service coordinator at the Family Empowerment Program and our guest on Washtenaw United. It's produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Family Empowerment Program


The Family Empowerment Program (FEP), a part of Engage @ Eastern Michigan University, is a recipient of the Community Impact Fund which aims to support solutions that mitigate and disrupt the intersectional impacts of poverty, racism, and trauma.

The Community Impact Fund provides multi-year (3-year) unrestricted general operating support to our grantees. The FEP will receive $30,000 per year (2022-2025) to support individuals and families in all Ypsilanti Housing Commission communities to foster self-sufficiency and enhance the quality of life.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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