Center for Families celebrates 30th anniversary one family dinner table at a time

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

A family gathers around a counter for breakfast together

Purdue University men’s basketball center Will Berg, a sophomore majoring in hospitality and tourism management in the College of Health and Human Sciences (HHS), knows the importance of family meals. In a February 2024 feature in the Purdue Exponent, Berg opened up about his love of cooking that started with regular dinners with his father, Martin — a joy that he then shared with other Purdue men’s basketball players.  

Stories like Berg’s are those that Purdue’s Center for Families, which is housed in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, is looking to make more common as they work to spread the word and strengthen families during their 30th anniversary celebration, beginning in April 2024. Melissa Franks, director of the Center for Families, is leading the celebration efforts alongside task force members Joyce Beery Miles, Bob Miles, Cheryl Altinkemer, associate director for policy Rob Duncan and project manager Kate Kester. The team is placing a particular focus on promoting the benefits of families sharing meals together at home.

“We decided that we would spend the year trying to raise awareness about the center and build collaborations in a way that might generate some friend-raising to get more people involved in the work of the center,” Franks said.

Hitting the milestone

A group stands together, smiling for a photo

(From left to right) Rob Duncan, Melissa Franks, Joyce Beery Miles and Bob Miles(Photo provided)

The Center for Families is one of HHS’ oldest centers and brings together collaborators from across Purdue University to focus on four key audiences to improve outcomes for families: educators, human service professionals, employers and policymakers. From a small beginning in 1994, mostly collaborating with HHS Extension, the center has expanded to offer annual educational seminars for Indiana legislators, a student intern program and endowed scholarship, research funding and three endowed awards for students and faculty, and much more.

Franks, who is in her second year as center director, follows in the footsteps of former directors Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth and Susan Kontos. To develop plans for the 30th anniversary, Franks collaborated heavily with Joyce Miles, who serves as chair of the Center for Families advisory committee. These discussions led to a partnership with the Family Dinner Project and HHS Extension to push out research and resources about the importance of family dinners with the goal of strengthening family relationships one meal at a time. In this effort, the center paid for more than $500 worth of resources for Extension educators to share directly with families.

“That’s something really exciting to me as the center director,” Franks said. “At the end of this anniversary year, if we have helped families learn more about the importance of family meals, the benefits of family meals, and how to do it within a busy schedule or on a tight budget, that’s a success for the Center for Families and the land-grant mission of Purdue to have some part in what a family is doing in their daily lives.”

Joyce Miles elaborated that the center’s involvement with the Family Dinner Project aligns with the mission of HHS and raises the bar for families throughout the state of Indiana.

“Almost 15 years later, (the Family Dinner Project) has either done the research or helped collect the research that supports what many of us in Health and Human Sciences have always known, which is that family dinners are important,” Joyce Miles said.

Bob and Joyce Beery Miles have been longtime donors and advocates of the Center for Families, recognizing the value of its mission and the effects of its long-term initiatives, including the CFF Annual Funding Program, the Indiana Family Impact Seminar, and the Rosabeth Moss Kanter Award for Excellence in Work-Family Research.

“What I liked about the Center for Families is they really use the research to strengthen families,” Bob Miles said.

From past to future

A group stands together, smiling for a photo

(From left to right) Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, Lorene Burkhart and Cheryl Altinkemer(Photo provided)

The center got its start at a philanthropy gathering that was part of Purdue’s College of Consumer and Family Sciences (CFS) Felker Leadership Series, which highlighted women, leadership and philanthropy. Altinkemer, the CFS director of development and alumni relations at the time, posed a question, asking the audience of mostly women what problem at Purdue they would solve if they had $1 million. Lorene Burkhart, the founding donor of the Center for Families, approached Altinkemer afterward, wanting to make her vision a reality and contribute $1 million to start the Center for Families. The rest was history.

“Lorene’s comment was about family meals and about how families are disintegrating and not staying together,” Altinkemer said. “She wanted to change that. That’s what got us started.”

For many alumni, researchers and individuals, the Center for Families has had a lasting impact in their lives, from shaping careers to funding research to providing resources. One example of this is Elizabeth Day (HHS ’09, ’16), research assistant professor at the University of Oregon, who worked as a policy intern in the Center for Families during her graduate studies at Purdue.

Day attributes her experience in the center for making her a competitive candidate for an American Association for the Advancement of Science Society for Research and Professional Development Congressional Fellowship. “I feel like my career trajectory and experiences were totally shaped by the Center for Families and getting to work with Shelley (MacDermid Wadsworth) and her team,” Day said.

While Franks is looking back and taking a moment to celebrate how far the center has come, the work never stops, and she’s already collaborating with the advisory council and leadership team to set the Center for Families up for future success.

“For me, it is really a milestone to build on,” Franks said. “It’s easy for me as a new director to look back and say this has existed for 30 years, but we want to continue to promote family research on campus and family engagement across the state and beyond toward a successful next 30 years.”