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Smart Start Rowan, Rowan Helping Ministries partner to support parents

Circle of support

Esther Akinmade with daughter Bethel, 22 months. Esther and husband Steve and their baby live in the EagleÕs Nest and hope to have a home of their own 'very soon,' Akinmade says. Susan Shinn/Smart Start Rowan

Esther Akinmade with daughter Bethel, 22 months. Esther and husband Steve and their baby live in the Eagle’s Nest and hope to have a home of their own ‘very soon,’ Akinmade says. Susan Shinn/Smart Start Rowan

Brianna Hemmings shows of her journal she made in the recent Circle of Parents group for her son, to be named Xavier Blake. Susan Shinn/Smart Start Rowan

Brianna Hemmings shows off her journal she made in the recent Circle of Parents group for her son, to be named Xavier Blake. Susan Shinn/Smart Start Rowan

Sarah Pace, left and Bianca Munoz read to Bethel Akinmade while her mother attends the Circle of Parents group. Free child care and transportation are provided to participants. Susan Shinn/Smart Start Rowan

Sarah Pace, left, and Bianca Munoz read to Bethel Akinmade while her mother attends the Circle of Parents group. Free child care and transportation are provided to participants. Susan Shinn/Smart Start Rowan

Lashonda Houston facilitates Circle of Parents groups in Rowan and Cabarrus counties. Susan Shinn/Smart Start Rowan

Lashonda Houston facilitates Circle of Parents groups in Rowan and Cabarrus counties. Susan Shinn/Smart Start Rowan

By Susan Shinn

Smart Start Rowan

For the past three years, Smart Start Rowan has offered support groups for parents of children ages birth to 5. Now, the agency is partnering with Rowan Helping Ministries to host a meeting for shelter guests and the wider community.

Circle of Parents meets in the New Tomorrows room at the shelter, 226 N. Long St., each Monday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. It provides a judgment-free zone for parents to talk, share ideas and get encouragement from one another.

This group is one of two Circle of Parents groups meeting in the community. The second is a Spanish-speaking group that gathers on Thursday mornings at Neel Road Baptist Church.

Both groups offer free child care and transportation, and paid facilitators lead both groups. Sherry Vechery leads the Spanish-speaking group, and Lashonda Houston leads the Rowan Helping Ministries group. She also works with Circle of Parents in Cabarrus County.

The Rowan Helping Ministries group began meeting Dec. 1, and typically has about a half-dozen parents in attendance.

Houston’s goals for working with homeless parents are no different from those for parents who have a home.

“I want to create a culture of love,” Houston says, “to help these parents build social connections. Some parents here do not have family support, so we build a family unit here.”

She also strives to help all families be aware of community programs that are available.

“It’s a mutual self-help group,” Houston says. “It brings hope and a lifeline.”

In Cabarrus County, Houston facilitates a teen parent support group.

“I was a teen parent,” says Houston, the mother of a 19-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. “It was a hard ordeal. But to help someone else, it was worth going through.”

Parenting, Houston says, is hard enough, but being a homeless parent brings with it another layer of challenges.

On this particular Monday, Houston meets with Esther Akinmade, mother of a 22-month-old daughter, Bethel, and two moms-to-be, Kristina Robinson and Brianna Hemmings.

“I enjoy it,” Akinmade says after class. “It’s something therapeutic and relaxing. I hear what others are going through and what I can contribute.”

Akinmade has recently been asking questions about potty training for Bethel, and has received helpful advice, she says.

Akinmade and husband Steve moved with their baby from Rhode Island in 2014 in search of work for her husband.

“This beautiful ministry took us in,” Akinmade says. “It was a blessing. We look back and we are grateful for where we came from.”

Akinmade’s husband works for a cleaning company which contracts with Freightliner. They are living in the Eagle’s Nest transitional housing, and hope to have a place of their own “very soon,” she says. “For us, it’s about finding the right environment and the right home. I don’t know how we could even complain about such a ministry. I appreciate this place.”

Mary Burridge of Smart Start Rowan serves as coordinator for the Circle of Parents program.

“We do provide transportation and cover costs of child care,” she says. “This is not just for Rowan Helping Ministries. It’s for Rowan County.”

In the basement of Rowan Helping Ministries, Smart Start Rowan has set up a play area with books, rugs, toys and other furnishings.

The Circle of Parents support group came about as a need identified in Smart Start’s strategic plan several years ago, according to Amy Brown, executive director. “We’ve had as many as four groups. With our general group, we were in need of a new space.”

So Smart Start contacted Rowan Helping Ministries, since its new facility would soon be coming online.

Kyna Grubb, Rowan Helping Ministries’ executive director, saw the need within her own agency.

“We are seeing so many more families,” she says. “In 2010, we served two families, but in 2011, we served 19 families, and each year since, we’ve served more than 20 families per year.”

Circle of Parents is one way agencies try to break the cycle of poverty.

“It helps build parents’ skills,” Brown says. “It’s an evidence-informed model. We have had success with this program.”

For parents, Grubb says, it’s an hour and half to talk with people who are experiencing similar challenges.

“That adult time is cherished,” Burridge says.

Because the program ends at 11:30 a.m., parents and their children are welcome to stay at Rowan Helping Ministries for lunch at noon, Grubb says.

Both Smart Start and Rowan Helping Ministries, Grubb says, try to identify and address needs in the community.

“And then we really pool our resources to address those needs,” Brown adds.

“We knew we needed help with our families with children ages birth to 5,” Grubb says, “but we are not experts. So we called Amy and her staff, who are experts. Our goal for families — and for all our guests — is to move to stable housing.”

“We want to empower families,” Burridge says, “not enable them.”

“You have to be collaborative,” Brown points out. “It’s not just for the good of our agency. It’s for the good for our community.”

For more information about Circle of Parents, call Smart Start Rowan at 704-630-9085.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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