Way to Grow supports student parents

by Jake Kapsner

Parenting demands include feeding, clothing, nurturing and teaching, teaching, teaching.
Student demands include eating, sleeping and studying, studying, studying.
Being a University student and a parent can be more than challenging; it can be isolating, say coordinators of a city program for parents with young children.
Harmonizing the rigors of a student parent’s experience is one charge of Way To Grow, a city-run nonprofit organization offering community services to these parents.
“I see more and more need to reach the student population,” said Robin Fisher, project coordinator for Way To Grow.
The city of Minneapolis founded the privately and publicly funded school readiness initiative in 1989. There are currently Way To Grow sites in nine of the city’s 11 planning districts.
Way To Grow supports families with children up to age 6, providing them with a chance to meet other neighborhood families.
The group’s most recent branch opened last year at the First Congregational Church basement in the southeast Como area. The group supports families in the Nicollet Island, Marcy-Holmes, Como and Prospect Park neighborhoods.
Like many in the city, the southeast branch fosters a free in-house program called the Play Zone. On Wednesday mornings and alternating Thursday evenings, kids run, romp and wreak creative havoc as parents and care-providers join the play session or connect with other families. The Play Zone moves outdoors this summer to Van Cleve Park.
Mac Tripeny’s 7-month-old son Paul learned to sit up by himself Wednesday at the southeast hub. Tripeny praised the program for helping his son learn balance, social skills and visual and musical awareness.
“If you didn’t realize all that was going on, you’d think he was just playing childish games.”
Child play has adult sway, however.
The youth organization’s community focus recently attracted national and international attention. Delegates from San Joanquin, Calif., met with Way To Grow staff and community partners to learn about the Minneapolis program in early May. In January, Way To Grow staff traveled to Northern Ireland to share the model program.
The city project has gained model status through its interaction with a variety of public and private groups, said Program Director Tene’ Jones.
For example, Way to Grow worked with city components such as the school board and Hennepin County to eliminate excess immunization for children, Jones said.
Another reason for the program’s success is that city branches are rooted in their respected communities. And diversified funding allows for diversified programming, Jones added.
Together with groups like the Early Childhood Family Education, the southeast branch seeks student appeal by bringing outreach programs from its hub out into the local community.
Rachel Eden and her 3-year-old daughter Brianna joined a family topics discussion at the Pratt Community Education Center. Eden will attend University College this summer while living with her parents.
Single parent Karla Gensler tackles medical school during the day, then comes home to cook, clean and play with her children. A child-care crunch would ensue if she didn’t have area family members to help out during her Saturday exams.
Gensler said since southeast Way To Grow is still an infant program, she’s barely used the service, but Early Childhood Family Education has been a boon in the past.
She noted that both programs reach young parents in the University community.
“It helps to know a lot of people are dealing with a situation that you are: potty training, bedtimes, everyday parenting issues.”
The Gensler family lives in the Minneapolis Como Student Community Cooperative Inc., where Way To Grow hosted a family topics discussion in early May.
The cooperative of 360 University family apartments has about 1,000 residents, and 46 percent of the families have children, said Jerry Erickson, the cooperative’s general manager.
Purni Ferrin, whose family lives in one of the cooperative apartments, reiterated the respective organizations’ impact.
“(The groups) are really quite good for people living here who don’t have transportation,” Ferrin said.
And as a diverse University population seeks family supports, so do the increasingly diversified University neighborhoods. The Central Village Way To Grow site, located in the Cedar-Riverside People’s Center, boasts a unique staff of Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Somali and Spanish speakers, said office manager Marie Erbe.
“Our main emphasis is home-visiting,” Erbe said.
Established in 1995, Central Village staff meet with 80 to 100 parents in their homes to discuss family goals, offer child development instruction and see that kids are ready for kindergarten, she said.
Way To Grow brings its neighborhood and parent-as-teacher focus to Loring Park June 6 for a broadly collaborative event called “Stand for Children.”