Engaging Parents Key to Healthy, Happy Families and Children

from Here & Now, Leake & Watts newsletter, Summer 2016

“Being a parent doesn’t come with a guide book. I wish it did,” jokes Selena Alston. Selena has faced many challenges in her life. Raising three children, she knows well the challenge of providing for children and ensuring the best life possible.


Helping children to thrive is not only about addressing their individual needs. It’s about supporting whole families. Leake & Watts builds parents’ strengths so they are equipped to fulfill their roles as the first and most important educator, influencer and care provider in a child’s life.


Giving parents the tools they need to help their children

Adversity was something Monica Morales knew all too well by the time she was enrolling her 3-year-old son Angel – or Jelly Bean, as she calls him – at the Leake & Watts Children’s Learning Center (CLC). Angel was born with microtia, a congenital deformity, and five holes in his heart. Monica’s life became a series of doctors’ visits and various therapies as she looked to support Angel’s many needs.


As time passed, Monica could sense something more was going on with Angel. He was intensely particular about activities and toys. He didn’t seem to be able to focus. He isolated himself. He refused to play with his cousins, twins near in age. He didn’t want Monica to touch him. “I knew something was off,” she explains. “Then, last year, he was diagnosed with autism. After going through everything else, to add something more hurt me. I didn’t know what to do, how to handle it, how differently I needed to treat him now.”


Two months after the diagnosis of autism, Angel was enrolled at CLC, Leake & Watts’s Harlem-based preschool for children with autism spectrum disorders. CLC offers students a wide array of therapies and approaches to meet their specific needs. “We create structure and a routine for children which gives them comfort and trust in the environment and allows them to learn. We focus on interpersonal and social skills,” explains Director Alzina Gilmore. “It is so important for children with special needs to get support as early as possible. Studies have shown that early interventions improve a full range of skills, language ability, and social interaction, greatly reducing and sometimes eliminating the need for therapies and special education as children grow older. So our support now really helps to increase opportunities for success.”


Each day, Monica drops Angel off and she picks him up. She checks a board listing all activities and lessons, including those individualized for Angel and talks with his teachers. They share what words they use and what songs they sing that encourage Angel to take part in activities. They review the games they play that makes his contact with others a little easier, as well as the ‘silly faces’ they make to help him with his speech therapy. “Certain things they do, I do at home, and that helps me and him,” she says. Angel just completed his first year at the CLC. “My Jelly Bean now can count to 20. He’s knows his colors and his shapes,” Monica shares. “I see the difference in my son. He sits next to the kids. I can hug him. Just a three- or four-second hug, but that’s a lot to me. My son is learning. It’s taking time, but he’ll be good. Before, I didn’t have that in my head.”


Creating stronger bonds

Nilca Castro grew up in the Bronx but moved away. After her son, J’meson, now 4, was born, she moved back to give him more opportunities. Just by being in New York, she had the opportunity to enroll J’meson at Leake & Watts’s Seabury Day Care Center.


Back in his mother’s old neighborhood, J’meson had opportunities, but his mother was struggling to find meaningful and consistent employment. “It was hard. I was raised here, but after coming back, I was starting over,” Nilca recalls. “I started to not want to do anything. Maybe my son wanted to go to a park, but I didn’t want to go outside. Maybe he wanted to see a movie, but I couldn’t afford to take him.”


It turned out the solution was right downstairs from Angel’s Seabury classroom at the Leake & Watts Family Resource Center (FRC). She didn’t realize it right away, but the Family Resource Center would quickly become more and more a part of Nilca’s life. Nilca heard that the FRC provides professional services for parents, so she went to seek guidance improving her résumé. “The Outreach Coordinator, Maria, helped me to see what I could improve,” she recalls. “Once I got my résumé fixed up, I applied for jobs. I got calls back right away, and I got a job.” First, she got a temp job with a tax-filing service, and two weeks later, she got her current full-time job as an office assistant.


Next, FRC staff suggested Nilca bring J’meson to the Center’s weekly guided playgroup. “J’meson loved it. We started coming every week,” she says. “My relationship with my son was always good, but I think it improved because I learned more about him at playgroup. He was very creative and very open-minded. He learned about me too. Little things like that start to add up.”


Nilca and J’meson became more involved, attending movie nights, “family fests,” and other activities to bring families and members of the community together. “In the Bronx, there aren’t a lot of things you can do with your kids. There aren’t a lot of places you can go together and feel safe – places where your child can learn,” Nilca says. “I think the main benefit of the Family Resource Center is building relationships with other parents and your kid. You keep learning as a parent as you go.”


understanding that you need to help yourself too

Selena Alston knew she needed help for a long time. “This place is great, and if I had known about Leake & Watts years and years ago, I probably would be a little further on,” she says.


Selena has three children – a daughter, 23, and two sons, 14 and 11. At various points, all of her children have been placed in foster care, just as she was as a child. Her eldest son is with his dad now, but in the coming months, Selena is looking to regain full custody of her youngest.


“I was using crack cocaine many years ago. I’m completely free of crack for about 9 years now. I stayed clean from everything for seven years. Then I picked up alcohol, not fully realizing that a drug is a drug is a drug. It really brought me to my knees,” says Selena, who has now completed an alcohol and substance abuse program at Jacobi Hospital.


That was where she saw a flyer for Parenting Journey, a parenting skills course offered through Leake & Watts. “Even though I didn’t need it for court or to get custody of my son, I said, ‘you know, let me take this class,” she says. “My mindset was, ‘I’ll show them,’ but when I got here, it was awesome. I learned that I cannot parent my child like my mom parented me. I learned about me more than anything. I’m still on this journey.”


The Parenting Journey class pushes parents to explore their lives to find the sources of their struggles and realize how and why they have found themselves in such difficult situations.


“The journey was just great. I needed to learn to parent my children my way,” Selena says. “This has been the first time in my life that I’ve learned about who I am and what I really stand for. This is just the thing that I’ve been looking for all my life.”


As she finds herself, Selena is also able to rethink how to manage her relationship with her son, with whom she has weekend visitations and looks forward to regaining full custody. “What Parenting Journey taught me is to take the journey with my child. He has a voice too. I have to listen to him as much as he has to listen to me. The journey is to grow together and love one another,” she says. “I’m just grateful that I found this place, and at the end, when I had that certificate in my hand, instead of saying ‘I’ll show them,’ they showed me who I really was.”


“When we support a parent, we’re not just supporting one individual,” says Marlene Cancel, Community Resource Specialist and Parenting Journey instructor. “We know it’s in every child’s best interest to be in a safe, stable and loving family, so we are supporting the whole family.”

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