On his office wall, Ron McClain has two framed images – a charcoal drawing of four faces of African-American boys and a black and white photograph of one boy with this quote:
“A seed in the rain grows in vain when there’s no one to care and roots won’t grow on concrete when dirt is nowhere to bear.”
That statement is the creed McClain holds close to his heart. He has carried the artwork with him throughout every step of his career. They are daily reminders of the nurturing and support young people need to grow into solid citizens.
“I am committed to planting seeds and nurturing,” McClain says. “I tell my counselors ‘don’t stop planting seeds.”
McClain is president and chief executive officer of Family Service of Greater New Orleans, a 116-year-old nonprofit with the mission of strengthening the emotional health and fostering the self-sufficiency of local families. Family Service is one of only ten social service agencies in Louisiana that has achieved the highest standard of accreditation from the National Council on Accreditation.
“I can’t imagine what our community would look like without Family Service – it is that critical to the safety net,” said Keith Liederman, chief executive officer of Kingsley House.
In the Trenches
Family Service is a first responder in times of human crisis and critical to preventing violence throughout the Greater New Orleans area.
The organization provides mental health counseling to children in the schools. Its counselors work inside private homes, providing psychotherapy and case management to entire families. In Jefferson Parish, Family Service counselors teach children to differentiate between good and bad touching to prevent sexual abuse. Twenty-five mental health counselors work in Family Service offices in St. Bernard, Jefferson and Orleans Parishes. Last year, the agency provided nearly 24,000 hours of direct services to nearly 13,000 people.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work with non-profits and Family Service is at the top of the list,” says Dr. Elmore Rigamer, medical director of Catholic Charities who collaborated with McClain to provide mental health support to victims of Hurricane Katrina and the British Petroleum oil spill. “Over the years, we’ve seen ourselves as reliable, trusted partners.”
McClain’s professional background includes working at the city’s Youth Study Center, Milne Boy’s Home and Kingsley House, providing intensive therapy to severely emotionally disturbed children and their families. His experiences have often involved observing, listening, interpreting verbal and nonverbal behavior, and mediating among conflicted parties. He has advocated for children who have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused or neglected.
“I’ve worked in the trenches with people in crisis and particularly with male youth,” McClain says.
McClain is very focused in achieving his goals, said Dr. Millie M. Charles, founder and former dean of Southern University at New Orleans School of Social Work who mentored him.
“He sets goals for himself and moves toward them very deliberately,” Charles said.
An Inspiring Example
McClain grew up in the Seventh Ward and Marigny neighborhoods. He studied at St. John Prep and was a Boy Scout. His parents were supportive of his educational accomplishments although neither had graduated from high school.
He studied psychology at St. Joseph Seminary in St. Benedict, La., where he considered becoming a Catholic priest, but instead married, became a parent, and continued his education, earning a master’s degree in social work from Southern University at New Orleans and, later, a law degree from Loyola University School of Law.
Studying law has given him yet another way to advocate for society’s most vulnerable citizens through legislation and civil law, he says.
“Ron is an inspiring example of what is possible when a person puts his talents to the pursuit of justice,” says Bill Quigley, director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University and McClain’s former law school professor. “Our community is so fortunate he is here.”
McClain was the first director of a school-based health clinic. The George Washington Carver High School Clinic in the Ninth Ward’s Desire neighborhood employed four physicians, a social worker and a health educator.
“At the time, the dropout rate in New Orleans high schools was almost 50 percent, but our service kept many would-be dropouts in school,” McClain says.
In 1990, he first came to work at Family Service of Greater New Orleans where he became the branch office administrator.
McClain was the first African-American chief executive officer of the Children’s Bureau, serving for eight years before returning to Family Service where he was also the first African-American chief executive officer of the organization.
“Ron has an incredible grasp on the complexities of managing an organization and providing leadership,” Liederman says.
McClain was recognized by the Louisiana Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers in 2003 and was more recently recognized as the 2012 New Orleans Regional Social Worker of the Year. He also received the Annual Founder’s Award from the New Orleans Association of Black Social Workers in 1991 where he has served over the years as vice president and president.
Through his many employment positions, it became clear to McClain that young people were not getting the support they needed. Children require nurturing, role models and basic financial support, he says.
“Families are the primary units for socialization; and Family Service is one of the few local groups supporting families,” he says.
A third of all U.S. children today grow up without their dads at home, but in African-American households, the situation is far worse with two-thirds of children living separated from their fathers.
Children in father-absent homes are five times more likely to be poor – and poverty is the undercurrent for almost all social ills. Recent studies show that children growing up without a father at home are more likely to get involved with high-risk behaviors and to experience educational, health and emotional problems throughout their lives.
To address this critical issue, Family Service is poised to launch the NOLA Dad’s Program, funded in part by Sean Payton’s Play it Forward Foundation, to help young men learn the responsibilities and joys of fatherhood.
“It is clear that when fathers are closely involved in their children’s lives, there are positive outcomes in the children’s health and their social, emotional and cognitive wellbeing,” McClain says.
McClain’s urgent focus is providing intervention to prevent young men from turning sadness, frustration and anger into violence.
“It’s been discouraging to see so many Black boys coming through, but also enlightening to see that support and advocacy can make a difference,” he says. “Recognizing the serious consequences that result when young men lack positive role models reaffirms my commitment to advocate for fathers to be with their children.”
And McClain says he is seeing progress.
“I’m a glass half full kind of guy,” McClain says. “Doom and gloom don’t work for me. We can prevent some of these kids from dying if we do more prevention because fewer of them will be in vulnerable situations.”
In these times when public funding for social services has been severely cut, Family Service is a bulwark maintaining lifeblood of the city.
“Our work is relevant,” he says.