In 2012, a friend told me about Porter-Leath and its AmeriCorps volunteer program. All she really knew was that they pay you a little something — a stipend, give you benefits, and you work in their programs. She said something that made me laugh and then apply: "Now you will be working with little kids, but you love them, so that might not be a problem."
When I tell you that I have never had a job that I love this much, that I spend this much time thinking about, planning for, training for, sometimes worrying about, I am not kidding. I feel like I've found my purpose.
I first came in as a Porter-Leath AmeriCorps volunteer, working out of the Regional Medical Center. We call it "The Med." Over at The Med, I was recruiting patients for Centering Pregnancy, a prenatal-care program that helps moms deliver healthier babies.
I loved that work but I was in need of a real job and a full-time salary. I shared that with my boss at Porter-Leath, and, before long, she put me on staff as a parent educator in their Parents as Teachers home-visiting program. Since then, I've become a team leader. I have a caseload — 15 families, compared to about 30 handled by experienced parent educators — and I help to train others.
The amazing thing about Parents as Teachers is that we connect with these families, ideally before the child is born, and we start from the very beginning introducing concepts like reading to your pregnant belly to enhance the parent-baby bond. We share with these parents the science, what we know about bonding and the baby's developing brain. It's like an essential nutrient. By the time that baby arrives, those parents are aware of the critical skills children need to master in those early years and the kind of environment they need to be healthy, to develop normally, and to do well in school. Then, if the commitment is there, we spend the next five years talking about and doing what's best for baby and his brain.
We ask these parents to think, discuss, and attend to the details of developing their child's brain in a way that may seem basic and easy to someone who can buy stacks of parenting books or hops on the Internet at home. But for a lot of the families I work with, this is a much bigger task. When a family is struggling with basic needs like food, shelter, safety, some level of financial security, taking time to think about how to turn preparing lunch into a brain-building, learning experience for baby or child or a transform a disagreement with dad into an opportunity to model communications skills is a lot.
For a lot of our participating families, the work that we do with them may the first real and sustained opportunity they have had in their lives to analyze, to strategize, to plan.
What Parents as Teachers does is try to address the family ecosystem. It doesn't ignore the challenges many of our parents face. As a matter of fact, we try to connect them with resources when they need them. That may mean connecting one family with a specialist for a hearing evaluation or glasses, helping another set of parents get job training or information on how to shop for and prepare healthy, lower-cost meals. But I think the really amazing thing is that Parents as Teachers is incredibly pragmatic and, somehow, optimistic.