Amy Hadden Marsh
Post Independent Contributer
Lizdebet Nuñez sheds tears of joy when she talks about Valley Settlement Project’s rapidly growing Parent Mentor Program, which reaches elementary schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.
“I’m really happy living here now,” she says. Nuñez, originally from Mexico, has lived in the United States for longer than a decade. She has two daughters, and when her oldest was diagnosed with asthma at 2 months of age, Nuñez, who holds a degree in computer systems from Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua, became a stay-at-home mom.
For some, raising children without having to work is a dream come true. Mom and the kids can enjoy activities outside the home — a trip to the community center, parent-teacher meetings, birthday parties with the neighbors. But, for Nunez, who didn’t understand English or the culture of her new country, staying at home meant one thing: isolation.
“I lost my passion for life and the desire to do something,” she said.
But, in 2012, when Nunez’s youngest daughter was enrolled in the Valley Settlement Project’s El Busesito preschool program, Nunez met a staff member who suggested she check out the VSP Parent Mentor Program. Now, Nunez says, her life is completely different. “It gave me a new way to dream and a desire to grow and help,” she explained.
BREAKING CYCLE OF POVERTY
The Parent Mentor Program is one of eight programs offered by the Carbondale-based Valley Settlement Project, an initiative of the Manaus Fund.
“Our focus is on people in poverty, most of whom tend to be Hispanic,” said Caroline Bradford, VSP consultant. “We aim to interrupt the cycle of poverty by raising educational achievement.” She added that kids from uneducated families with other stresses of poverty don’t do as well in school. “The Parent Mentor Program integrates parents with a low educational level so they become more comfortable with the schools.”
The Manaus Fund, founded by local philanthropist George Stranahan, opened its doors in 2005. Stranahan was inspired by the Logan Square and Hull House settlement houses, which took hold in Chicago over a century ago and helped low-income immigrant families feel at home in their communities.
The Valley Settlement Project is the foundation’s flagship program that grew out of a nine-month, community listening project in 2011. Bilingual organizers from the foundation interviewed 300 low-income, mostly Hispanic families in 25 neighborhoods throughout the Roaring Fork Valley to identify barriers preventing them from becoming settled and involved in their communities.
“We wanted to know what challenges they faced, what their hopes and dreams were, and what kind of action they were willing to take to make changes,” said Bradford.
The study found that these families were disconnected from schools, services, jobs and other opportunities, mainly because of fear and because they didn’t understand the culture or how society works in the United States. “Most people get a job by word-of-mouth,” said Bradford. “But for people who are not well-connected with the community, that doesn’t happen.”
She added that navigating the school system is a major hurdle. “They are scared of the school system and don’t know how to talk to teachers.” She said that, because of cultural differences, most of these families do not understand that it’s OK and even necessary to be involved in their children’s education.
So, with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation, the Valley Settlement Project took shape in 2012 to reduce poverty and social isolation by improving academic achievement and professional skill-building within the Roaring Fork School District.
“The Valley Settlement Project is better than any organization I know at community outreach and building authentic family and community engagement,” said Rob Stein, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer for the district. “They engage families in the discussion about school readiness, and their visioning process brought hundreds of people to the table.”
VSP programs include El Busesito, a mobile preschool program; Kinder-Konnect for kindergartners; the after-school, Power Time elementary school program; community organizing; adult learning programs; and the Parent Mentor Program.
Teacher demand for parent mentors has doubled every year since the program’s inception. In 2012, VSP placed 15 mentors in Crystal River Elementary and Sopris Elementary schools. In 2013, 40 mentors served six schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. This year, 80 elementary school classrooms have requested mentors.
Stein said mentors have become better educated about the school system and how to support their kids at home, which is a big step given the difference between cultural values of parental involvement in the schools. In Mexico, “the parent’s role stops at the gate,” he said. “They are not as committed to the high level of parent involvement as we are in the U.S.”
PASSION AND A BIG HEART
Eloisa Duarte, Parent Mentor Program coordinator, has been dubbed the “Muse of Manaus” by some of the mentors because of her passion and her ability to inspire others. Duarte became a mentor in 2012.
“I was scared of everything when I saw the classroom,” she recalled. “My English wasn’t good.” But she knew she was a good mom and had plenty of love and compassion to give to the students. “I was able to connect with my smile, my eyes and my hands.”
Her persistence paid off. After her first year, she got a promotion. “[The Manaus Foundation] saw in me an aptitude for engaging with people, so they asked me to become a coordinator,” she said in fluent English with a big smile and, yes, tears in her eyes.
She said mentors do not have to speak English to enter the program, but they must fill out a simple, one-page application form, complete an interview and submit to a basic background check required for all school volunteers. Teachers also fill out a form, indicating needs and expectations. Then, Duarte carefully matches mentors with teachers. “I look for [volunteers] who inspire kids and are passionate,” she said.
Mentors must commit to a semester of two hours a day for four days a week in the classroom and an additional, weekly training program.
“We talk to them about domestic violence, child abuse, hygiene, how to teach, how to create a resume and find a job, and how to become more engaged in the community,” explained Duarte.
Kathy Whiting, Sopris Elementary School principal, gives the program high marks.
“I think it’s an amazing way to connect the Latino community with the schools,” she said. She added that, initially, some teachers were nervous. They wondered if working with women who didn’t speak English and who were unfamiliar with the school system would be worth the trouble. But she hasn’t received any negative feedback
“After awhile, the teacher and the mentor know how to work together,” she said.
She’s also noticed that children are more engaged in learning. “The students with [mentor] moms are thrilled that their parents are there.”
Changes are common within families who participate in the program. Duarte said her son is proud of her accomplishments and is excelling in school. “He got an award from the Carbondale Town Trustees for student of the month, and he wants to go to college,” she crowed.
The mentors themselves are changing, too.
“The women have a voice now,” said Duarte. “They are no longer invisible.”
Lizdebet Nuñez agrees. This year, she will be the mentor coordinator at Sopris Elementary School. Her English is almost fluent, and her daughters are doing well. She has dreams for her future, and, because of what she’s learned from the Parent Mentor Program, a means of achieving them.
“If you have things that fill your heart and soul, you’re life will change for the better,” she said.