Stephenson County Health Department
Parent Engagement – Our Journey to Parents as Partners
Rural Stephenson County is nestled in the far Northwest corner of Illinois, bordering Wisconsin, 60 miles East of the Mississippi River, and 100 miles West of Chicago. Stephenson County’s small, hometown lifestyle provides a great mix of history and technology. Families enjoy the benefits of having award winning “Blue Ribbon Schools” and leadership that supports innovative approaches to early childhood collaboration. Of the 47,000 residents 2773 (approximately 6%) are young children. This county is rich in partnerships. Ninety (90) percent of agencies providing services to children and families are linked with the local All Our Kids (AOK) Early Childhood Network. Stephenson County uses its community resources to best meet the needs of its citizens, making it a great place to live and raise a family.
Stephenson County AOK Network has made Parent Engagement a priority since inception, however what this Network learned was that Parent Engagement is not a training its a journey. In 2002 the AOK Network developed a parent Support group called “POPPY – Parents of Powerful Prospering Youth”. This group was taught how to set goals, and write a strategic plan for getting involved in the community. However, the plan was not directly geared towards the birth to three year old population so the funding was cut and the group disbanded after one year. In 2005 the Network was introduced to Parent Cafes by the Strengthening Families Illinois program. A group of five providers were trained to host and facilitate these Cafes, and began offering them in a 3-part series called “Love is Not Enough To Keep Your Family Strong” once a year. All standardized materials, publications, and evaluations were used but there still was not much growth. Some revisions were made in the program such as changing locations and training more providers but this was not enough to create the changes that were desired.
The Network began to revisit the definition of Parent Engagement and started to ask questions like “What does this mean? How would it look in action?” During this time, Network providers and parents participated in some key events that started to set change in motion. Two parents and two community providers attended an Art of Hosting Retreat called “Leading Engagement”. It was a three day event focused on bringing decision makers to the table with people who are affected by the decisions. Also during that time, a group of 15 Network partners, which included both service providers and parents participated together in a program offered by Be Strong Families called Awaken To Your Potential as a Provider, Parent and Person. These two events became pivotal points to really understanding how to engage parents. The key message that developed during this process was; when we set aside our expectations and assumptions of each other, and agree to be in learning together, we can impact more than we can imagine.
The Network did not move forward in conducting more Parent Cafes until the Network Coordinator made a critical change to embrace a real parent-provider partnership. This meant coming together as equals – each with something valuable to offer. Now the Network hosts three Parent Cafes sites at three different locations. Parents design the café topics, invite the speakers, and setup the cafes. Each café site is led by a parent, and all table hosts are parents who have participated in cafes before, and have been trained in hosting conversations. Parents are offered a stipend for sharing their skills, and the Network provides childcare, a meal, and transportation. All three sites are fully funded, and the Network is working on building a 4th school-based site at the request of the school. Churches have partnered to offer food, childcare, space, and role model partners for the cafes. A parent presented information to a local community foundation about Parent Cafes, and not only received funding, but was able to get the funding director to attend Cafes as well. AOK Network partners are using the Parent Café model in their parent support groups, and as planning tools. The Network also developed a new learning series called “Explore” that parents and providers are encouraged to attend together to learn to deepen their collective work. Parents love the opportunity to be real and to see providers being real as well. This ability to build meaningful relationships is one of the reasons there has been such great success.
Several years ago, I lived in a town outside of Illinois that had serious conflict due to racial, ethnic and economic tensions. As relationships deteriorated; business owners, church and community leaders began hosting Community Conversations in an effort to allow individuals to come to the table and simply talk. I was impressed how these authentic conversations had such an impact on everyone who participated. After we moved to Illinois, I found myself in a unique position. For the first time in many years, I was not working in a professional setting and I spent most of my time being alone with a toddler. I struggled knowing how to make friends, specifically with other moms who could possibly be feeling the same things I was. Several months later I found a group for moms (MOPS) where I quickly became engaged. We often had a speaker, followed with a time of table discussion. I appreciated each person present. We all had our own situations, yet I seemed to identify and learn something new each meeting. I formed new and meaningful relationships with ladies whom I would never have met in any other setting. Due to the nature of the group, I knew that as my toddler grew, I would eventually be unable to participate. Around that time, I was invited to attend a Parent Café. I immediately knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. I saw that effective methodology that I had experienced years ago in the Community Conversations partnered with rawness of what parents deal with on a daily basis. I embrace the belief that we are each the expert for our own child. I have seen parents arrive at a Café feeling incompetent and within hours, those same parents leave a Café full of hope and encouragement. The power of having a safe space to vent, ask questions, listen to ideas, have your ideas be validated and gain new knowledge is energizing. Often when I go home after a Café, I replay those positive interactions and sideline affirmation that one parent gives to another. The value of those life-giving words is not lost on me. I know that what I have observed and experienced has made me a better parent. I help host and facilitate Parent Café’s because I believe one well-equipped parent will impact our community in immeasurable ways.
I was receiving many flyers for Parent Cafe. The more places I go to the more flyers I see. I was always asking, what is a Parent Cafe? The response was always the same, ‘It’s an indescribable event you have to experience to fully understand.’ I decided to take the plunge; curiosity definitely got the best of me. I just had to know what it was. I went to my first Cafe. I was welcomed in, participated and left feeling so empowered. Wanting to experience more I continue to go. About 3 months in as I’m signing in someone asked me where my son was. I expressed my concerns that he has food allergies, and I was quickly reassured that his unusual allergies will be well taken care of. After this reassurance, I decided it was time to bring my son. He was so full of happiness and joy, it brought a tear to my eye. As we leave for the night discussing our experiences, he wants to know when we can go again. I try my best to explain to [my] 2 yr. old how long 1 month was until the next Café. As we continued to go to Cafes my son’s excitement was just overwhelming on “cafe days”. The feelings we would leave a Cafe with were just amazing. As I continue to notice the joy and empowerment Parent Cafes brought to our lives, I reached out to see what else I could do to help be a part of this. I have strong desires to make my community the best it can be. After another season, I was invited to attend the final planning Cafe for the next season. I was offered a class to be a facilitator and table host for Parent Cafes! I attended the training and was asked if I would like to help facilitate a new site for Parent Cafe. I was truly blessed with this opportunity, as it opened the door for many more trainings to sharpen my abilities as a leader. I am honored to be active part of Parent Cafes. I love being able to help and learn all at the same time.
What resources are necessary to replicate this approach?
- MUST have a parent spokesperson who will call and invite other parents, get them excited, and facilitate the Cafes.
- Stipends for childcare, facilitators and table hosts.
- Refreshments/Meals if churches aren’t able to provide.
- Café bag with markers, tape, scissors, a bell, a timer, nametags, sign in sheets and evaluations (re-stocked after each café).
- Large roll of paper to utilize as table coverings. (Churches typically provide tableware)