ParentCorps Specialist Melissa Santos has worked with Lillian (Lilly) Rodriguez-Magliaro, Senior Program Director at the The Child Center of NY, for many years, including through the pandemic. Here, Melissa and Lilly share a conversation around ParentCorps’ partnership with The Child Center in Corona, Queens.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and share some details about the ParentCorps partnership in Corona?
I've been with the program in Corona for a little over 13 years and in total 19 years with The Child Center. The families that we provide services to at the Corona location are families with low income, many of whom have recently immigrated to the United States. We provide services to families who have children with special needs.
What has made you continue the partnership with ParentCorps?
The Child Center was initially approached to engage in ParentCorps’ pilot program. The decision was made that the program would be vital for the families that we serve. We continue the partnership because we've seen the outcomes. We've been able to use the program in ways that have not only enhanced The Child Center, but have also given parents the tools and strategies needed to work with and guide their children.
Are there highlights or memorable moments from having ParentCorps at your school?
One highlight is the parent engagement piece. That is vital for our children. When families are engaged in the program, they get to see how the work is done through a different lens. What has stood out to me is building that ParentCorps community and support system within the families we serve.
“What has stood out to me is building that ParentCorps community and support system within the families we serve.”
Five or six years ago, a mother in our ParentCorps community became ill. It's still mind-blowing to me when I think about it because it shows the relationships that are being built. The mom unfortunately passed away, but during the time that she was sick, the other parents in the ParentCorps program built a schedule, cooked dinners, and had a fundraiser for this family. It became a community. It was no longer “just my kid and me.” It became “us and the children.” It takes a village to raise children and guide them in the right direction.
On a brighter note, one thing that always makes me giggle - because I sit in my office and have my door open all the time - is hearing families in the hallway talking to each other or utilizing the tools and strategies that they've learned in ParentCorps with other parents that are not attending. “I've learned this,” or “Maybe you should try this,” kind of conversations. And it shows me how vital the program is because they're learning, and they pay it forward.
It sounds like the intention at Corona is that ParentCorps is woven into every aspect of the center. There's this big commitment on your end that has led to this level of partnership.
When the family service team is doing intakes, we're already thinking about ParentCorps. We're already saying, “This parent would be a good fit.” When the teachers are conducting their assessments, they're already thinking, “ParentCorps could support.”
The parent also has to be willing. The parent has to be a participant, coming in with the desire to learn. I think that's one of the things about the Corona community. They're hungry to learn. When you bring someone a resource that is needed and they are ready to take it on, they can move forward and change happens.
What is your general approach to family engagement and how has it translated to ParentCorps?
Family engagement is extremely important. It is my belief that the parent is the first educator of the child. The parent is the one that has the ability to make changes in the child's life. Relationships are everything.
We serve a community of individuals who immigrated to the United States and don't know the system. When you build a system within your own program that gives them a sense of safety and trust, you become the entity that they come to for help.
You have to build the engagement of a family from the very beginning, from the moment they walk in. It's important that families know who we are. You have to be present when a parent is sharing something. You give them the time to hear them, to listen. Building that sense of trust, that sense of commitment to the community, is important so that when you walk through the door, you already know you belong.
Even if you're new to the program, you're already part of who we are. You're part of our DNA because you're a family member within the community.
“Even if you're new to the program, you're already part of who we are. You're part of our DNA because you're a family member within the community.”
It's also important for us to understand that we are part of the community. We're not just workers, we're members and that's a very different perspective. You can go into a community and work, but when you become a member of the community you're invested. It's funny because I hear parents in the hallway saying, “Go speak to Miss Lilly because she will help you.”
I heard a mom once say in Spanish, “Si no vas hablar con ella, ella se te va ir detrás.” In other words, “If you don't go and speak with her, she's going to go after you.” What she meant was that she already experienced me running down the street after her. If the only way I was going to get her attention was running down the street and walking her to the train, I was willing to do it.
I bring this up because right before I went on vacation, that parent came to wish me a happy birthday. There were some flowers on my desk and I looked at the card and I looked up the name. [I’ve talked to] hundreds of parents over the years and I'm like, “Oh my God, it's this child's mom.” After nine years, maybe I was on her heart. And I kid you not, I ran after this mom. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work.
We know that it's been a tough three years and that Corona was the epicenter of the pandemic in NYC. What are some of the challenges you faced at the organization?
One of the challenges was not knowing how the families were doing. I can only speak for myself, but that was very difficult. When they're in the program, I know what's happening. I can't help if I don't know. I am eternally grateful for The Child Center, how quickly we moved as an organization, and how quickly we hit the ground running. Within maybe two weeks, we were already virtual. Everyone was on the phone calling families. This time was difficult because we not only lost members of our team, we also lost members of our community. We're still feeling it. As a community, we're still in mourning.
As an agency, we moved so quickly to address the needs, and we believed one of the most important needs was food. The Child Center created a partnership with Common Foods and we started giving out food bags. Our Board and Development team also raised a great deal of money and we were able to give funds to help families pay their bills and access basic necessities. Your mission is your mission. It doesn't change in a pandemic. You just keep plowing through, trying to ensure that the children are receiving what they need and engaging the parents.
We were very grateful that during COVID, ParentCorps also moved very quickly and was able to build a virtual program. Is it the ideal way of doing it? No, but it is the way we're doing it and it's still having an impact.
Given how long this partnership has been, how has it been building a relationship with your coaches throughout the years?
It's been wonderful to be building toward something and be on the same page. We've had some really incredible people come through our doors from ParentCorps. I think the relationship has been a healthy one and one of commitment on both ends. Over the years, you all have touched hundreds of parents with ParentCorps.
It's been incredible to watch the level of commitment from families in Corona. We're happy to be in partnership with you. What's your why? What motivates you?
I believe that my purpose is people. I don't take that lightly because people are important. I really work hard to always see the potential. Everybody has potential.
What would you say to other organizations that are thinking of partnering with ParentCorps?
Understand your why. You have the potential to impact kids’ futures. So, why not? When a child is born, we don't know how much time we have with them. We only know that we can work with that individual, and I think that we all need help. We're not perfect, but when we have the tools that can generate change to produce a better future, then why wouldn't you?
I wish that when I was a parent of a 3- and 4-year-old someone would have walked me through these strategies and tools. It's so beautiful to see a parent gain skills and see the joy that they have when their child starts to change because they've made a decision to implement. You hear it in their conversations in the hallway. Their conversations are different.
For any organization that would want to consider ParentCorps, understand that ParentCorps will help the community you serve.
Melissa Santos is a ParentCorps Specialist.