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Eve Sullivan discusses her work with Parents Forum, a grassroots organization concerned with family life issues

On February 4th, 2009 Eve Sullivan, Founder of Parents Forum, a grassroots organization concerned with family life issues participated in NPi’s community dialogue at the Boston Public Library. NPi community dialogues bring together local leaders to discuss lessons learned, current projects, and potential collaborations. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

About Parents Forum

Chris Bates and I together founded Parents Forum in 1991/1992 and foolishly, or maybe in the long run wisely, thought that people would think that a positive program for parents was a good idea.

Parents Forum is based on a curriculum of eight questions that I wrote. The purpose is to raise individuals’ emotional awareness and improve their communication skills. It isn’t magic, it isn’t rocket science, but it really works. We get a room like this with people in it and we say we’re going to do Parents Forum and we go through these eight questions… We haven’t engaged individual parents with the success that we thought we would have, but we have started licensing our curriculum. We have an ongoing program in Everett and we had a one-year program in Roxbury… We’ve also done sponsored work in the Norfolk men’s prison since 1993. That has been very rewarding and emotional, and we’re trying to figure out how to get a funding stream so they can license our material and train their chaplains. The Department of Corrections program director wants to do this. So there are opportunities to get involved in various ways.

On what she’s learned from the community

It’s been so much harder than we ever imagined to engage individuals in talking about something that’s really personal. How you raise your children is right next to your heart, and people don’t want to come and talk about this with folks that they don’t already know. There has been an evolution in our approach to involving already established groups in the community. So we see that as the avenue that we will pursue.

On the need for something like Parents Forum

I think there’s a great similarity between the situation you [Joel Schwartz, Director of Moving From Debt to Assets] described of people knowing that they needed to do something about their money. I think people know they need to do something about communication in their families, but they’re in denial about it. They don’t know where or how to begin to begin… What we need for parenting education is a public awareness campaign that says that parenting education is something everybody should have, like healthcare. Maybe make it part of healthcare to raise the awareness of and acceptance of parenting programs. At the same time there is a need for the people who do parenting education, the social workers or volunteers like myself, to be compensated and recognized, because there are costs involved whether we are paid or not… How can we nudge people in the direction of getting the services they may not know they need, but will recognize the value of, and how can we have the services paid for through tax credits or through healthcare benefits or some other means?

On how Parents Forum began

It’s a case of life giving you lemons and making lemonade. One of my anonymous, wonderful sons was in a treatment program for alcohol and other drug use as a teenager… This program, unfortunately no longer in existence, had a very strong parent peer support component… Groups have special language. What I got in that program over the 18 months or maybe two years… was that parent peer support is a good thing, it is possible, and it works. On leaving that program I thought, well, why did I have to come to the brink of despair and desperation to learn all these things? I trained to be a language teacher. Maybe there’s a way that I could teach it to other people.

About Parents Forum’s curriculum

I started with questions, and these are the questions.

1.) What do you like about your family (or household if you’re not living with family members)?

2.) What troubles you about your family or your household?

3.) The third question is a big one, several questions rolled up together: How do you ask for and give help within your family and in the community for your family?

Those are the “getting acquainted” questions. Then there are two questions under “getting organized.

4.) What are your household values?

5.) What are your household rules? The next two questions, 6 and 7, are “getting serious” – about transitions in families.

6.) What happens when someone joins your family? It could be a birth, it could be a marriage.

7.) What happens when someone leaves your family? It could be a death, it could be a divorce, it could be a child going off to college. It’s someone leaving the household.

8) The last question, #8, is simply “stating changes.” What changes have you experienced in the last month or week, or what changes do you anticipate or fear?

With each of the questions people are asked to look inside themselves and try to figure out how they feel. Also, we give portions of the workshop. The whole workshop takes about four hours, with a break for a meal and then snacks. In one mini-workshop we use only question #3, the one on asking for and giving help, under the title “How to tell somebody something they’d rather not hear,” which we all need in different moments. And we actually give that at MIT where Chris Bates and I both volunteer in Charm School. They have a one-day Charm School at MIT… We also give a similar workshop to MIT parents, but call it “Becoming the Parent Your College Kid Needs.”

Advice she would pass on to others

I’d like to say that as someone who has, with uneven success, run an organization for the past 17 years… one of the biggest needs of any organization is good board members… Board service really is a wonderful way to be involved in your community. It may be thankless and it’s sometimes boring, but it’s very important and you meet people and you help people and you feel good about what you’re doing to make a positive difference…

And be clear… be clear about what you want to do and what you can do in terms of volunteering. Some people will say oh, I can’t do more than one day a month and I don’t care what it is. Well, for that, go to People Making a Difference (PMD). You can sign up to clean up a park on a Saturday and have a grand time, or help out at the literacy fair. Someone might say well, you know I’m really good with numbers and I’ll do the back-office piece. Be the treasurer on the board, do that part. Try to find the right match for the service piece in your life, and don’t be too frustrated if the first thing you try to do doesn’t work out because there’ll be another organization coming along that will be right for you.

What to do when you encounter a difficult time between a parent and a child

A very wise friend Bonnie told me to try to physically ally yourself with the parent. Let’s say you’re in the line at the grocery and the person in front of you has a kid who’s screaming and yelling and reaching for the candy. If you stand sort of sideways to the parent and just talk to the parent, maybe say something humorous like “Opera tryouts were last week! He missed the audition!” or, “You know, there’s a good voice.” I said that the other day at the supermarket to a woman whose kid was screaming. You ally physically with the parent and then you say something supportive and gentle, maybe appreciative… “Gee, what a great color. That sweater looks really nice on that kid.” Just try to lift the parent up and break the tension because they are probably as upset as the kid. If you can diffuse the tension, it’s a good thing.

On challenges they’ve faced

The main one is getting consistent and committed board members, people who understand and share the mission, whatever that happens to be and who are willing to do the dog work… Work, wisdom, wit and wealth is what board members need to bring… People say they want to do a lot of stuff, but service is the last thing on anybody’s list, and that’s reality. We all have our own personal lives – families and relationships and our work. Somebody has to get out there and earn money and – something we too often neglect in our society – we need to have fun, too. Service is last. So you have to have people like Chris and others who have, over the years, said “I’m going to help you, Eve, and do whatever it takes,” or “I’m going to do what I can for you and this is what I can do.”

On why she does the work she does

I do it because when I do it I see the lights go on in people’s eyes. They understand that they can take a role and improve their own interactions with – and eventually their relationships with – people who are causing them grief or confusion… And I guess I’m a teacher. I’ve always liked to play school.

How to get involved:

Parents Forum is seeking new board members in various capacities and community partners – agencies and groups to license their parent peer support curriculum. If you are interested, please contact Eve Sullivan eve@parentsforum.org and copy info@parentsforum.org.


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