By Dan Haley
Parenthesis, a 33-year-old Oak Park nonprofit focused on providing social services to teenage moms, was chosen last week by the Collaboration for Early Childhood to lead the effort to engage local families with very young children considered to be at risk.
The Collaboration's groundbreaking initiative to reach out directly to a portion of the estimated 350 at-risk newborns and toddlers in Oak Park is being funded over a five-year period by three local taxing bodies: the village of Oak Park, Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 and Oak Park Elementary School District 97.
The theory is that early connections and support for families with children with one or more risk factors can lead to greater social and economic progress, and that such an early investment will translate to greater school success.
"This is a very exciting moment for all of us," said Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, executive director of the Collaboration and a former District 97 school board member.
Newberry Schwartz said Parenthesis had been selected for the key role after a "very competitive review process." Parenthesis, she said, had the advantages of currently providing direct outreach efforts to local teenage moms and single moms, being credentialed for a program called Parents as Teachers and for being Oak Park-based.
The bulk of the Collaboration's annual budget in the coming years will go toward the Parenthesis outreach effort. And Parenthesis will have to grow markedly to serve the number of clients planned. Presently, Parenthesis has an annual budget of $420,000. As the Collaboration program gears up, it will collect $1.3 million in its third year from the local taxing bodies for the outreach program.
Both Newberry Schwartz and Kathy Kern, the executive director of Parenthesis, agree that such rapid growth will lead to challenges.
"Do I foresee some bumps for them and for us? Of course," said Newberry Schwartz. "We are creating something new here."
Kern said her agency has already posted three job openings which it hopes to fill with experienced social workers by early January.
"It's daunting, but very exciting," she said.
Home visits are scheduled to start as early as February.
How will Parenthesis and the Collaboration identify families which might benefit from the services? Kerns and Newberry Schwartz said they will seek a wide range of referrals from local social service agencies, daycare providers, health care workers, police officers, word of mouth and, of course, self-referrals.
Newberry Schwartz said one of the strengths which helped win the contract for Parenthesis was its "most creative ideas to reach out to people."
Kerns said the outreach aspect is potentially challenging and that staff members need great sensitivity in the initial connection.
"It's critical in that first conversation to build the relationship, to reinforce the positive," she said.
The initial contact is frequently by phone with an effort made to set up a face-to-face get-together, often in a neutral location.
Once in contact, the goals of the Collaboration are to develop a long-term connection with the family. Medical and nutrition referrals will be made, connections and referrals to strong child care and preschools will be offered, and parenting skills will be reinforced in regular visits which could be as frequent as every other week.
Oak Park's effort remains unique in the state, possibly in the country, said Newberry Schwartz, based on the community-wide scope of this project and the public funding. She said that the Illinois Governor's Office of Early Childhood Development has been helpful and supportive, but that most often the state program "keeps holding us up and saying, 'Look what Oak Park's doing.'"
"Oak Park is so cool," said Kern. "To see us take this on really is groundbreaking."