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Wednesday, May 28, 2008 03:41 pm

Empowerment, not entitlement

Center teaches parents how to take charge of their own lives

Bonnie Roberts, left, and Barbara Rochelle run the family literacy program at Lawrence Adult Education Center.
Untitled Document Center teaches parents how to take charge of their own lives
Parents who enroll in the family literacy program at Lawrence Adult Education Center get more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. They get parenting classes, help finding child care, coaching on how to deal with their kids’ problems at school, workshops on dealing with domestic violence, guided instruction on getting the most out of the public library, and tips on navigating the network of social-service agencies to find anything else they might need.
What do any of these bells and whistles have to do with earning a high-school diploma, a GED, or vocational training? They help clear away obstacles and distractions that have prevented the young parents from focusing on education.
Take parents who must skip work or their own classes when their children misbehave in school. If they agree, Barbara Rochelle, Lawrence’s family literacy specialist, will accompany the parents to their kids’ “individual educational plan” meetings to help them learn to advocate for their children. “If there’s a problem child, there’s a troubled parent,” Rochelle says, “so in order to help the mother focus on her goals we try to bring stability within the household.”
Rochelle’s boss, literacy program coordinator Bonnie Roberts, says the key to maximizing services is resisting the impulse to tackle challenges for the parents and instead teaching the parents how to solve problems themselves. For example, if a parent needs help paying utility bills, Roberts and Rochelle won’t line up financial assistance, but they will invite the parent into their office and provide a small yellow directory of social-service agencies, plus a telephone, a notepad, and a pen. Similarly, students in the family literacy program get assignments every week to find certain information in Lincoln Library. “Many of them have never entered a library — going into a place with a lot of books is not something they would necessarily choose to do — but they end up discovering that it’s like a support system for them,” Roberts says. “They can go there and explore legal issues, parenting concerns, and get help for homework.”
“They can rent movies and get computer access — they love all of that,” Rochelle says. Rochelle treads a fine line between doing for these young moms and helping them learn to do things for themselves, Roberts says. “If they have a struggle, Barbara won’t do things for them, but she will be a sounding board and help them vent to the point where they can figure out what they need to do to solve their problem themselves,” Roberts says. “She’s very strong in not doing anything for the parents that they can do for themselves, and I think that builds a lot of respect.”
This year, the parents achieved a new milestone after reading with their children the book Beatrice’s Goat — the true story of a young Ugandan girl and her economic upturn after her family receives the gift of a goat. The Lawrence students held a bake sale at the school and used the $200 proceeds to buy a goat, a flock of geese, and some chickens to send to Africa through the Heifer Project International.
“Many of the families who come to our program are receiving public aid. They have the mentality of having things done for them, and through this [book] there was a shift,” Roberts says. “They went from a sense of entitlement to a sense of empowerment,” Rochelle says.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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