Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to go virtual in 2020, Essential Families was already developing a digital platform with a variety of services and resources to help move families forward. Through their extremely successful Essential Broadband Pilot Program, Kenneth Yancy and Terri English-Yancy, the husband-and-wife team behind Essential Families, demonstrated how internet and computer access, paired with parental education and family wellness support, improves the livelihood of families in underserved areas. Now, they have plans to expand nationally.

Everything Starts at Home

Essential Families, a state of Missouri registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, provides preventive virtual essential programs to below and slightly above-poverty families in 23 counties throughout the greater Kansas City area.

English-Yancy’s 24 years of experience working with the nonprofit, The Family Conservancy, served as the foundation for her creation of Essential Families. After more than two decades of seeing the stressors both families and family care providers were facing, she decided to develop a program that uses technology to not only address the digital divide but also provide families with access to much-needed care, education, and resources.

Yancy has more than 40 years of experience in software development and digital marketing, including working for tech powerhouses IBM, Sprint, and Cisco Systems, among others. With this background, he was able to build the digital platform that hosts Essential Families’ programs. This includes access to NoW, their virtual meeting application, and EveryThing, a search engine-style resource similar to Google through which families can request and access a wide range of information.

The pair’s vision for Essential Families is to reach, inform, and inspire the lives of children and families, underscored by the belief that “everything starts at home.” Through the Essential Broadband Pilot Program, they hoped to show how equipping families with a computer, stable internet access, and essential programs and services could improve their livelihood by combatting some of the barriers to wellness that exist in underserved communities.

Through strategic partnerships with Kansas City public schools, charter schools, childcare providers, neighborhood associations, and city government, Essential Families successfully completed the Essential Broadband Pilot Program, connecting 69 families to their preventive programs and services, including:

  • A laptop.
  • High-speed broadband internet.
  • Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) internet assistance.
  • Computer and internet training.
  • Connection to a digital navigator to assist with computer and internet training and other questions.
  • Virtual home visiting.
  • Virtual mental telehealth.
  • EveryThing database of essential local resources and information.
  • NoW video conference app.
  • RING video doorbell.
  • zTrip.
  • Childcare payment assistant.
  • Digital workforce development and job opportunities.

Following enrollment into the pilot program, families were given a laptop and provided with computer and internet training and ACP enrollment assistance with the help of an Essential Families digital navigator. The navigator works as a case manager to guide families through the process and routinely follows up to ensure they are comfortable using the technology and accessing all of the available resources and services.

Two main focuses of the Essential Broadband Pilot Program were telehealth and parental education focus. “We have learned that it takes more than just computers and internet services to move the digital divide and to change the scope of the layout of America,” English-Yancy said. “They need services like mental telehealth and the virtual home visiting that we offer.”

In her previous nonprofit work, English-Yancy received six free counseling sessions through an employee assistance program, which she then implemented for pilot program clients. Providing direct, free, virtual access to counseling – without the need for insurance – connected families to mental health support services that proved especially vital following the burnout, isolation, and other stressors brought on or exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.

Virtual home visits, coupled with Essential Families’ “Nurturing Parenting” curriculum, empower families and communities at large to play an active role in preventing child abuse, navigating trauma, and helping families thrive. Program clients who opt in to home visiting complete an initial assessment to help providers identify a starting point from which to work. Before moving to the next lesson (there are 15 sessions total), families must have demonstrated adequate understanding of the previous lesson via a feedback assessment.

This model also benefits providers who, as she found in her research, were being paid six months late due to processing times through private insurance providers or Medicaid. As a result, the telehealth model allows program clients to get the mental health care they need without payment or proof of insurance, and allows providers to get paid on time, allowing them to continue caring for their own selves as well.

After each counseling session or home visit, both clients and providers must complete a feedback assessment, the completion of which generates the provider’s payment. This feedback also allows clients and providers to report how the process is going, share wins, and point out any areas in need of improvement.

The real-time reporting of client and provider experiences is a unique and key feature of Essential Families. After feedback is provided following each client onboarding or virtual visit with a provider, that information is then reported live using client ID numbers to protect anonymity. At any moment, partners and funders can see the utilization, success, and growth of the Essential Broadband Pilot Program and its direct impact on underserved families.

Closing the Digital Divide

The Essential Broadband Pilot Program offers families more than just a laptop and basic training on computer and internet navigation. The education and resources offered open a variety of doors for family members, whether they are out of touch with newer technology or rely on consistent, stable internet to work, attend school, or access the included services that help strengthen their family’s well-being.

In rural communities, unstable or simply nonexistent internet creates a divide that prevents families from accessing virtual health care, education, job opportunities, and, simply, information. Because hospitals, mental health providers, and other specialty care services are few and far between in rural areas, telehealth options offer critical access to care. However, the pandemic also underscored the need for easy, consistent access to reliable information and the ability to attend school or work virtually from home.

As a result of the pandemic, many people also either lost their jobs or decided to look elsewhere for something more flexible as schools remained closed. For families interested in a career change, or simply expanding their skill set, the Essential Broadband Pilot Program also includes workforce development. In addition to getting current on today’s technology, users can receive training to become software developers, digital navigators, virtual home visitors, and more roles under the Essential Families umbrella.

“It’s not just about the laptop and searching on the internet or getting on Facebook,” English-Yancy said. “If they want to find a job now, they can stay at home on a reliable laptop with reliable internet service, they can find a job adequately, they don’t have to go to the library or use their phone or use their hotspot. It’s about making sure that our families have the same abilities and skill sets that someone in suburban America has, the same access, equal opportunity for all.”

Though the pilot program served families in need in the urban Kansas City area, it is well-equipped to translate to other areas, including rural communities, to help close the digital divide. As long as the infrastructure is in place – an upload and download speed of 100 megabytes each – Essential Families and its partners provide the rest.

“We do an assessment of the community, we have tools that will determine the upload and download speeds, and then we have a partner agreement that states what we would be doing,” Yancy said. “It’s the same service, it’s just delivered in different areas. There’s no income verification, we aren’t turning people away because of their income, there’s none of that.”

“We can do this anywhere and we want to take this nationwide,” English-Yancy added. “We want to make this life cycle, this virtual thing easier for everyone. It’s never going to go away, this whole hybrid model is going to be the way of life going forward. With Essential Families, we are on the cutting edge because I don’t know any other organizations that have taken it to this level that we have, but you have to think outside the box.”

Plans for Expansion

The Essential Broadband Pilot Program was an outstanding success, almost to its detriment – the program exceeded its goal of serving 69 families in just 37 days. As a result, the program ended up with a waiting list of 12 families. Now, Essential Families is using their real-time reported data to encourage funders, donors, partners, and community-based organizations (CBOs) to continue investing to help expand the program.

Waitlists for health care and social care providers had a large influence on program development; English-Yancy noticed that previously, they’d been referring clients to outside providers who were then waitlisting them for several months, further deterring care. 

To avoid contributing to the prevalence of waitlists, Essential Families welcomes partnerships with CBOs that provide care and need support with overflow, waitlists, or delivery of telehealth services, or that simply want to outsource telehealth services. CBOs are encouraged to reach out to Essential Families to discuss potential partnerships. “There is tremendous opportunity for partnerships,” Yancy said. “That’s how we reach more people.”

Essential Families is also continuing to work with schools to get connected to large numbers of families at once through a coordinated effort. However, continued investments are needed to expand services and grow to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Testimonies gained from the Essential Broadband Pilot Program demonstrate the need for the program’s services for both clients and program partners. Clients found the program beneficial for the computer and technology skills they gained and how the services helped them think more intentionally about their family’s health.

Although Yancy’s experience in digital marketing helps promote the program across all social media platforms, word of mouth continues to drive client interest and referrals. English-Yancy reported they have already hired two families that were enrolled who now help provide services to other families in their community. Senior clients who have completed the computer training classes also frequently referred several friends as older family members strive to stay connected with children and grandchildren.

The reaction of a local principal after becoming a program partner, however, truly underscored for Yancy that this program is one of a kind. “To see a principal break down and cry and say, ‘I’ve been looking for you all, I’ve been looking for somebody to come in here and provide true, wraparound services for my babies,’ that right there locked me down, I’m not doing anything else but this,” Yancy said.

Though his robust experience in software development has him constantly fielding offers from entrepreneurs to help sell houses or cars, Yancy insists that his skills are now better spent helping bring internet access to underserved families.

“I really don’t want to do that anymore,” he said. “We’re going to put everything that I know behind Essential Families because there’s a great digital equity divide but from our perspective, digital equity is economic development. It’s not just helping people get on Facebook or Google, it’s a must-have, it’s not a luxury anymore.”

For English-Yancy, the most rewarding part of seeing the program’s success has been getting in touch with the community and being able to meet families where they are. “I don’t need validation for what I do because I’m confident in what we’re providing,” she said. “For me, it’s knowing that what we’re offering is unique and needed and they’re accepting of that and now willing to be a part of the movement that we’re doing here.”

Learn more about the Essential Families – Essential Broadband Pilot Program.