Parenting School- Lessons for the most important job in the world

Parents don’t get manuals, yet some are open to learning. On the tenth anniversary of the Saint Joseph Parenting Center a nonsectarian nonprofit in Stamford, we asked founder and board member Measi O’Rourke about its work. Find out more by attending its Annual Spring Breakfast, with guest speaker Bobby Valentine, on April 22, during Child Abuse and Prevention Month.

SJPC has been open for ten years. Has its purpose changed?

“The mission and vision have not changed over the past ten years. I believe that is part of our success. We have remained true to our mission and very focused. We do not try to do it all, nor do we do what others are already doing. What we do, we do well. Our mission is to strengthen families that are at risk of child abuse and neglect by providing parenting education and support. Our vision is that all children live in a world free of abuse and neglect. Imagine that!”

Why step down as executive director?

“From day one, I have believed that SJPC should and could be a national model. Running SJPC in Stamford is a full-time job that did not avail me any time to work on expansion and growth beyond the Stamford center. After ten years of growing SJPC from $50,000 of seed money to a well-governed $1 million organization, I felt it was time for a generational change. I did not want to be that founder that didn’t know when it was time to leave. I felt a new executive director would bring in new ideas and new energy to take SJPC to the next level. That would free me up to work on replicating this model in other cities and towns.”

Does one parenting issue come up frequently?

“Honestly, I believe the biggest issue is healthy relationships. Most of our parents are single parents and do not have the support of their child’s other parent. Single parenting can be done, but it comes with a lot more effort and challenges every step of the way. Also, a large percentage of our parents were abused themselves or grew up experiencing childhood domestic violence. Adults that have experience are seventy-four times more likely to commit a violent crime. This is what is meant by the cycle of abuse.”

You have a program for fathers?

“SJPC has always been father friendly. It makes sense. A child is half mother, half father. We know the research behind the importance of having both a mother and a father involved

in a child’s life and all our programs support that research. In 2013, the state Department of Children and Families came to me inquiring about how we had so many dads in our program and asked if we would run an additional program exclusive to fathers. We agreed to purchase and run the 24/7 Dad program developed by the National Fatherhood Initiative. This is a twelve ­week closed program offered to dads only. It has been a great success. and we have received so much positive feedback from the fathers that have gone through the program.”

What sets it apart?

“There is never a wait. If a dad wants to get involved in our center, he can. immediately. If the 24/7 Dad program has already started. the dad can join our General Parenting program while waiting for the next session for the 24/7 Dad program to start. Most important. our program gives dads a venue to talk about fatherhood. This is not something dads do naturally in their everyday environment. It is amazing to watch them articulate their passion for their children freely with other men. It’s a beautiful thing. We also team each dad with a case manager who will advocate for their rights as a father. All of this is done in the best interest of the child.”

Are parents referred to your organization or is it open to anyone?

“Our programs are open to all parents. Some parents come voluntarily. This is more common among our Spanish­ speaking moms and dads. They seem to be tonging for community and find SJPC a safe and happy place to come to. We get referrals from Department of Children and Families (DCF). the courts. the public schools, Optimus and various other community partners. We have parents coming from Bridgeport down to the Bronx, and all the cities and towns in between. That is one of our arguments for opening centers in other locations. It is difficult for some of these parents to get to Stamford. We believe we need to go to the parent. not the parent come to us, in an effort to support them and decrease their already stressful life.”

What is it like for a parent on the first visit?

“Most parents who walk through our doors are in some sort of crisis. They are scared. often angry and defensive. Our core value at SJPC is that we love them first. With no judgement of where they are or where they have been, we welcome them with open arms. Our first priority is to help them meet their family’s concrete needs if necessary: food. clothing. shelter. etc. That is a fundamental of parenting-making sure your children are in a safe environment with food and clothing. No parenting class will make a difference if you do not have the basics to live.”

What’s next?

“Our next goal is to build a rapport and we know that will take time. There will be little transformation or behavioral change on the parents’ side until they can trust us. That is the significance of the longevity of our model. We tell the parents that SJPC will support them until their youngest child is twelve years old. We call them every six months to see how they are doing if they have not been coming to class. Many of

our parents that have completed the programs come back to speak with a case manager and repeat classes as a refresher. In our eyes. that is success.”

This article appeared in Stamford Magazine in March 2020. Article by Diane Sembrot

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