IT'S A regrettably familiar

story: Children are removed from their families by welfare authorities to protect them from neglect, deprivation or abuse.

But sometimes there's an end to the story that's rarely told: families who do whatever it takes to get their children back, sons and daughters who are brought home to stay.

That story will be lived out this Christmas in the North Philadelphia home of Helen and Lawson Hairston.

For the first time in four years, Helen's three teenage children won't have to end the holidays by making the sad transition back to a group residence or a foster family.

Thanks to the Hairstons' perseverance, the children are home to stay.

Helen Hairston was living with her children in an older daughter's house four years ago - after two years in a shelter - when the city's Department of Human Services stepped in.

The house was barely habitable, Helen's life was unstable and the children were taken from her.

"I was really upset," she said.

Helen fell into a paralyzing depression - but not for long.

She had too much to do to get her family back together.

DHS has a novel program that helps families do just that.

The Achieving Reunification Center is a one-stop resource for families who need to meet court-mandated goals to earn their children back.

"In the past, families would have to travel around the city to get to various services," said interim ARC director Martin Harris.

"The idea was to remove all the barriers that parents faced when trying to get reunified."

ARC provides tokens for travel to the office and on-site child care for the children who may still be at home.

Parents can learn work skills, attend counseling for housing and financial issues, attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, receive services from an outpatient mental-health clinic and attend parenting and GED classes.

The goal is not merely to reunite the families, Harris said, but to equip them to become stable and self-sufficient so that they can stay together.

Helen became a fixture at ARC's offices at 714 Market St.

"Helen was an ARC favorite," Harris said.

"She was here every day. She engaged with the staff. She was very hardworking and very diligent about what she needed to do with regards to getting her children back."

Although Helen was required only to get workforce skills and to find stable housing, she took advantage of ARC's other opportunities, including parenting classes.

They helped.

"I used to fuss at my kids and yell and cuss at them every day," said Helen, 41.

"Now I don't do that. You can sit down and talk more with them instead of yelling and cussing. They respond better."

Her husband, Lawson, 51, is the children's stepfather and was not required to meet any goals.

But he went anyway.

Lawson completed a job-training course, attended a fatherhood group - Focus on Fathers - and, with Helen, took housing workshops and seminars.

He's not working yet, but Helen has a job at Wawa. They now live in a three-bedroom apartment in a PHA building, a place big enough for a family.

"I think Helen sets the standard," Harris said, "because she was more engaged in the services and not only just the services of getting her children back, but to be more prepared when they came home."

Helen's children - Paul, Robert and Theresa Allen - were initially taken to St. Vincent's Home, an emergency shelter for children, then dispersed to group homes.

They were able to spend Christmas with their parents, but had to leave when the holidays were over.

"It was hard," said Robert, 15.

"I never wanted to go back. I never liked being away from my parents."

"I was sad," said Theresa, 16, of the times she had to leave.

This week, all of them - including Paul, 18, who lives with his biological father - were preparing for a big family Christmas dinner and a Pollyanna exchange.

"I want to take a big picture of all of us and put it on the wall," Helen said.

"I'm very happy."

And while the rest of us might be sorry when the holidays are over, this year the Hairstons and their children will have the enduring gift of being back together again. *

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