Since its inception in 1992, the Local Investment Commission has worked collaboratively a variety of citizens – neighborhood, business, civic and labor leaders – to improve students' and families' lives in several Kansas City area school districts.

In many cases, that involves before- and after-school care. In the Fort Osage District, however, the partnership with the organization commonly called LINC works in several other ways to assist and strengthen families.

“Very beneficial for students and parents,” Fort Osage Superintendent Jason Snodgrass said of the partnership with LINC. “They have a number of services that bridge the gap between school and home.”

Those services, sometimes varying by site, include a food pantry in partnership with a local church in Susquehanna, school supplies, a small garden as an outdoor classroom, LINC's largest student chess club, a book club, and starting this year an eight-week program to help young students and parents connect better through weekly coaching sessions.

The pilot class for FAST – Families and Schools Together – included seven families that went through “graduation” after Tuesday's final session at Blue Hills Elementary.

“It takes the entire family, and it's one day a week for three hours,” said LINC coordinator Steve McClellan, who works out of Cler-Mont Elementary. “We feed them; we start taking them through specific situations and how to communicate with each other. There's buddy time (parents with their children), play time and parent time where they talk with each other.”

“It's difficult work, but it pays off.”

The non-profit LINC also has a presence with school sites in the Center, Grandview, Hickman Mills, Kansas City and North Kansas City districts, and also a bit in Independence, but not near as much as Fort Osage.

“It's evolved in every school district the last 20 years, but here it's unique,” McClellan said. “We're the largest provider for before- and after-school for school districts. It's huge; it's the mechanism LINC uses to funnel in other services.”

“Fort Osage already does before and after care, so out here it's completely different; our highest priority is parent and community involvement. We have the ability to go outside the classroom.”

Brent Schondelmeyer, LINC's deputy director for community engagement, said Fort Osage is distinctive among districts in the region because of its combination of urban, suburban and rural settings, and it doesn't have a strong social service infrastructure within district boundaries.

“LINC was created to work with schools districts with a higher number of free/reduced lunch programs,” Schondelmeyer said. “It's always been open to idea of what can do to strengthen families.”

Before Tuesday's final session and graduation, mothers Courtney Powell and Christina Caldarella both said they would heartily recommend the FAST program to other families if they asked.

“It gives us more common time, you get to meet different people and find out what they do,” said Powell, who has two young sons.

Caldarella, who also has 16-year-old twins, welcomed the time with younger daughter Janessa. “We don't get much one-on-one time,” Caldarella said. “To have adult time, getting together and talking about everyday challenges, you find out, 'Oh, good, I'm not the only one going through that.'”

Among other LINC initiatives, students Cler-Mont Elementary cleaned out raised garden beds, cultivated produce along with neighbors, and will be managing a row of newly planted trees.

Perhaps the most popular initiative is the chess club, which not only introduces students to the game but helps build critical thinking skills.

“The first thing we do is teach the process of playing the game,” said. Ken Lingelbach, who works for LINC at Blue Hills.

Chess students went to five tournaments this year, including one girls tournament, Lingelbach said, and they work with 11 instructors from around the metro area, including grandmaster Zeb Fortman.

“We're always finding ways we can work with any family,” Lingelbach said, ranging from “back snacks” for students to take home to utility or holiday assistance. “Each one of our sites is different.”

McClellan said that because of LINC's partnerships with many organizations, it can help the district serve a variety of needs.

“We have that ability all day, every day,” he said. “You're forced to find changes (in how to serve) because life changes.”