The nonprofit organization Moving Dorchester Forward, based in Cambridge, started as a group of local leaders concerned about the holes in the resources and services available to the community. They chose to concentrate on three areas: early learning, workforce development, and community engagement. The task of getting area citizens involved in what MDF was doing began with Community Engagement Coordinator Shay Lewis-Sisco and her team holding events to create awareness of MDF.
While they were out there, the team asked people what the community was missing and how MDF could connect them to vital resources. It quickly became clear that money, activities, personnel, and action planning (among other things) were sorely needed, so MDF decided to be the conduit to those services. One of the questions the organization asked themselves was, “What are the capacity-building skills for parents?”
Fortunately, they learned about the Parent Encouragement Program from Kevin Beverly, Moving Dorchester Forward’s board president. Beverly, who lives and works in Montgomery County, knew of the PEP group that has been active there for twenty years, meeting with parents and caregivers of children ages 3-18 and then teaching them skills in cohort-based environments.
“A lot of them are parents sitting there going, ‘How do you talk to a teenager, and how do you get them on regular routines’ and all that fun stuff,” explained MDF director Chris Wheedleton. “Particularly for folks that are working two jobs and maybe single-parent homes and all these extra challenges for them from a parent standpoint.”
PEP wanted to work in another community besides Montgomery County, so they came to Dorchester with a grant and the Family Resiliency Program, which helps families learn how to communicate with their children and generally balance the things in their lives.
MDF decided to conduct two pilot programs. Though PEP’s model typically relies on virtual classes, Wheedleton and his team chose to begin theirs in person. The first session of the initial cohort was held on February 7 at Delmarva Community Services Intergenerational Center, with Lewis-Sisco and another community engagement staff member as facilitators.
“We wanted to do it in person simply because it’s about building relationships, and it’s hard to build relationships when you’re doing that in a virtual environment,” said MDF Coordinator Nancy Shockley, who oversees PEP. “We were willing to do the structure and set up whatever we needed to do in terms of the food, in terms of the daycare and facilitation and stuff like that.”
Parents were able to take their children to the in-person session, where the kids were placed in groups by age to work with the community engagement staff while the parents focused fully on their own group. But, there were also challenges with everyone meeting in one place: the time of day they all could gather, activities parents needed to accomplish at home or elsewhere, and the difficulties of transportation.
So, MDF gave the attendees the option of having the sessions online, and the next time they met it was on Zoom, which turned out to work well. The second cohort ran from April to June and was fully virtual. It was offered in two groups of sessions, on Thursdays and Sundays. Any parents who wanted to participate but didn’t have the necessary equipment were provided with it by MDF.
The topics for the eight weeks of sessions, outlined by PEP, were very relatable and included helping a child manage change, raising more motivated and cooperative kids, knowing when to set limits, and responding to a child’s strong emotions. The facilitator would show an instructional video that presented simple tools parents could implement within their families. This would be followed by some specific questions, and the group members would hold a discussion about such things as how their own parents responded to them during difficult incidents of their childhood. There were talks about the three parenting styles–permissive, democratic, and authoritarian–and why the democratic style was the preferred one.
Then there were the discussions of mental health, which children need support with no matter their age or stage of development. Because of generational differences among the parents, there were some for whom the normalizing of mental health was a challenge.
“I will say that, in one session, I felt that culturally, specifically around mental health, there was some tension at times,” said Lewis-Sisco. But, it was her job to set the tone of the conversation, and she made sure everyone knew each session was a safe, confidential environment for difficult dialogues. “As a facilitator, you have to be intentional to make sure that, no matter what the culture is or race that’s present, they have the space to be able to share their experience. And I often say, in facilitated conversations we need to attack the problem, not the person.”
As the group members talked and realized that everyone was being open and transparent, they were willing to continue the engagements and connect on a whole new level. The parents found themselves looking forward to the sessions as their own form of mental health support. While the facilitator would play videos and ask the hard questions, it was up to the parents to provide each other with encouragement. Some of them even learned to be leaders themselves.
“And then from there, we’ve actually been able, through the first cohorts, to identify additional facilitators,” said Shockley, “because the whole idea of using that PEP model is that parents who go through the program can potentially become facilitators of the ongoing groups, which is really just building the capacity and giving parents sort of that peer sort of network opportunity of working together.”
When the cohorts were finished, MDF brought the parents together for a family fun night event at Cabin Fever in Downtown Cambridge. They were able to meet with author Joy Thomas Moore, mother of Maryland’s governor, for some family engagement activities and discussions.
“Both groups that went through said, ‘What’s next? We’d like to keep going,'” said Wheedleton. “And we just met with PEP recently and they said, ‘We’ve got additional funding to actually do eight more cohorts next year.'”
He and Shockley are now planning that with Lewis-Sisco, who will take the lead on the structure of the ongoing Family Resiliency cohorts to commence in the fall. At the same time, they are able to offer the parents other programming focused on such subjects as mental health, first aid, and finances.
“So many of these families are working two jobs and are struggling to make ends meet,” said Shockley. “And that makes parenting even more difficult because of the ongoing stresses of trying to pay the bills and meet all of those things. So, we’ve actually had a number of those parents sign up to participate in some of our other work around generational poverty and how to kind of take the next step and move on.”
For more information on PEP’s Family Resiliency Program or to sign up for the next sessions, contact Shay Lewis-Sisco at [email protected] or 443-440-5370.