Washtenaw United: SOS Community Services 'Parents as Teachers' program building family foundations in Washtenaw County
Rhonda Weathers has served as the Executive Director of SOS Community Services since 2013. She oversees programs that prevent and end homelessness for more than 7,000 people in Washtenaw County each year. During her tenure, she has implemented a number of exciting initiatives including the reintroduction and expansion of SOS’s Parents as Teachers program, which promotes learning and development for at-risk children. She designed an innovative new program to prevent eviction and homelessness for local Section 8 tenants. She serves on the Boards of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, the Washtenaw County Continuum of Care, and Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth. In previous positions, she has overseen the provision of domestic violence and sexual assault services as the Executive Director of Oasis Family Resource Center in Cadillac, Michigan. She also has worked as a psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Eastern Michigan University.
SOS’s children’s services director, Rana Smith, earned a Bachelor of Arts from Siena Heights University and is certified in Early Childhood Administration. She oversees SOS’s children’s department including Parents as Teachers and Fatherhood programming. She has facilitated parenting programs in Head Start and Detroit Public Schools. In her role at Detroit Public Schools, she developed curriculum called Parent University to help parents earn GEDs. The curriculum, which is still used today, included information about child development, positive discipline, drug prevention, and child abuse prevention, as well as classes on landscaping and food service taught by skilled community members. Hundreds of parents attended Parent University and earned credits that helped them complete their GEDs. Some even got jobs working for Detroit Public Schools in landscaping or food service. Rana also has managed a fatherhood initiative and child abuse prevention training.
David Fair: This is 89.1 WEMU. And I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and I'm not sure if you're aware, but through the month of May, there is a community baby shower underway aimed at helping mothers and families in need. Now, part of the proceeds of that drive are going to support SOS Community Services and its "Parents as Teachers" program. It helps parents build a strong family foundation by fostering healthy growth and development for their children through a variety of in-person training and resource measures. It's community building community one family at a time. Our guests today are going to tell us more about it. Rhonda Weathers is executive director of SOS Community Services, and Rana Smith is children's services director. Thank you both for being here today.
Rana Smith: Thank you.
Rhonda Weathers: Thank you, David.
David Fair: Rhonda, Washtenaw County--it's a community with growing housing and food insecurity. Inflation is driving prices up and wages not keeping pace. These are all things that can adversely impact families and children in a variety of ways. Is it among the reasons that the local Parents as Teachers program came to town some eight years ago?
Rhonda Weathers: Most certainly. You know, we have a history of trying to serve our families in the best way possible. And we recognized the need several years ago to expand our children's programming to provide in-home parenting, education, and support to families with very young children. So, Parents as Teachers is a wonderful curriculum. It's a national model of home visiting intervention, and we brought that into town to be able to best serve the families in our housing programs, but also throughout the community.
David Fair: And. Rana, you have said about yourself that everything you do is performed through the lens of racial and social justice. How does this program meet the criteria of that personal and professional mission?
Rana Smith: ] Well, we make sure that we serve all families. We are inclusive of all families in the Washtenaw County area. Our staff reflects the community that we serve, as well as the tools that we use. As far as going into the homes, we are respectful to all families and their culture, and we enjoy learning about other cultures as well.
David Fair: Through this Parents as Teachers program, how many families are involved in the program at the moment?
Rana Smith: So, we have about 90 families in our program.
David Fair: That is a lot of families to serve, and it can make a tremendous difference individually and communitywide. But I would imagine that only scratches the surface of those in need. How do you decide who gets help and who doesn't?
Rhonda Weathers: Our program is geared to serve those with the highest level of need. And so, all of the families in our programing have a number of different what are called risk factors. And we try to serve those families, number one, who approach us first. It is a first come-first serve program. But we also look at eligibility criteria in terms of how many risk factors do they have. So, a family with more risk factors is going to come to our attention at a different level than those who have very few.
David Fair: And, Rana, what are the most prevalent issues you find that are impacting children adversely through this program?
Rana Smith: Yes, that would be homelessness as number one, lack of resources, such as diapers, lack of food, utilities, jobs, parents being able to make an affordable wage for their whole family.
David Fair: And has it worsened since the onset of the pandemic?
Rana Smith: It absolutely has.
David Fair: 89.1 WEMU's Washtenaw United continues. We're talking with Rhonda Weathers and Rana Smith from SOS Community Services about its Parents as Teachers program. And, Rhonda, some of the issues we're talking about amount to trauma. In addition to the resources in the home, what kind of emotional support is being wrapped into this program?
Rhonda Weathers: Well, I think that the families that we serve through the Parents as Teachers program derive a great deal of support simply by having a very caring and understanding parent educator come into the home, and they can really listen to the family and listen to what is most pressing for that family. So, it's not just a canned curriculum that's delivered in the home. It's really a parent educator coming in and engaging in a dialog with the family about what are their needs and what is most crucial for them right now.
David Fair: And then, based on those needs, there are a wide number of resources available throughout the county you connect them with, right?
Rhonda Weathers: Correct.
David Fair: Rana, sometimes people are too proud to ask for help. Sometimes, people don't have a great deal of trust or faith in community-based programs. You find there are sometimes big hurdles to overcome to this kind of programmatic support?
Rana Smith: Yes. There are a lot of hurdles at times, and how we jump those hurdles is making sure that we are building a relationship with the family. You know, we actually had a family recently where the family was short on food, and Dad would not take any food. He didn't want any food brought to the home. And so, what we actually did was meet Dad at another location and talk with him, you know, more about the program. And we gave him a lot of food to take home because we do have a pantry at SOS. We gave him a lot of food to take home to his family because we want to make sure that, you know, everyone's pride is kept in check. And he took the food home. They're still a part of our program. And the father, you know, is happy. And the children were happy seeing Dad bring food home.
David Fair: I was going to say it makes a huge foundational difference in the family structure when the parents fully open and accept.
Rana Smith: Absolutely.
David Fair: Rhonda, all too often we find that, again, as I mentioned, need is greater than resources available. Are there people in our community not only going without because the Parents as Teachers program is limited in its budgetary scope, but find that they cannot get out of that cycle of homelessness and food insecurity?
Rhonda Weathers: Most definitely. Everything plays together. Hunger and food insecurity is directly tied to homelessness, and those factors are directly tied to the need for parenting support. So, it all comes around, and the more people that we can get involved in programming related to parenting or related to homelessness or related to food insecurity, the better our community will be.
David Fair: Our Washtenaw United conversation on the SOS Community Services Parents as Teachers Program continues on 89 one WEMU. Rhonda Weathers and Rana Smith from SOS are with us today. And I want to talk a little bit about progress and outcomes. Rana, is there measurable evidence that the kids that are served by this program are progressing in their learning process?
Rana Smith: Yes. The curriculum is actually an evidence-based curriculum, but we have also kept up with the children who has gone on to, like, the Head Start programs, and they are actually doing very well in the Head Start programs. We also have our own screenings that we do ASQ's, so we can catch any kind of developmental delays early and refer to early on and or their doctor.
David Fair: And, Rhonda, again, this is a family-based endeavor, but to give the greatest opportunity for success, it takes more than family. Historically, the public education system has underserved people of color and those living in low-income communities. How does this program teach parents to engage in the education system to better ensure positive educational outcomes for their children?
Rhonda Weathers: Well, one of the goals of this program is to really make sure that children are ready to enter kindergarten without additional support. So, part of the program is really helping the parents to understand what is going to be asked of children when they enter kindergarten and making sure that the parent is prepared for that transition to a school environment, as well as the child.
David Fair: Rana, we've been talking today largely in procedural and program-oriented ways, but this really is a program about people. What is your favorite success story that come out of your involvement in the Parents as Teachers program?
Rana Smith: Well, my favorite story is a young lady who started out in our rapid rehousing program. She was pregnant, homeless, living in her car and wasn't quite sure, you know, where her next meal was coming from. After getting into our rapid rehousing program, she was able to secure housing and, from that, she received a section eight voucher. Through that time, we helped her learn about the development of her child and how to take care of herself, as, you know, while she's pregnant and gave her a lot of referrals in regard to, like, any kind of therapy sessions that she needed. From there, she decided that she wanted to go to school at Eastern. We encouraged her, gave her the support that she needed, connected her with the right people. During that time, we also helped her with finding a childcare for her child while she was in school, and we also assisted her with her homework sometimes because she was going into the social work program. And so, you know, we helped her with that. She was taking part in our group connections, where she learned about, you know, networking with other parents. You're not in this by yourself. You know, there's other parents who are going to school as well. From there, she went on and graduated from Eastern. She then decided that she wanted to get her master's. And so, she just recently graduated with her master's and doing very well. We're very proud of her--an excellent parent. She provides a lot of resources to the families that we have in our program as well. She speaks to other parents to let them know, "Hey, I did this, and you can do it, too!"
David Fair: And the life changes she has made could very well be generational and spread out through the community that she ends up touching.
Rana Smith: Absolutely.
David Fair: So, I'd love to end on a high note, and that's about as a high note as you can get. So, I'd like to thank you both for being here and sharing with us today.
Rana Smith: Thank you.
Rhonda Weathers: Thank you, David.
David Fair: That is SOS Community Services Executive Director Rhonda Weathers and Children's Services Director Rana Smith. To learn more about the Parents as Teachers program and how you can participate in the May community baby shower that benefits the program, visit our website at WEMU dot org. And we'll get you linked up to where you need to go. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU-FM, Ypsilanti.
Most recently, SOS Community Services became a recipient of the Power of the Purse Fund, which aims to support existing and emerging programs and initiatives that increase the financial capability of people who identify as women.
UWWC invested in the work of SOS Community Services through a $10,000 grant to support the Parents as Teachers home visiting program for parents with low incomes. This initiative was created to develop children who are healthy, safe, learning and ready for school.
SOS Community Services is also a partner and recipient of baby supply donations for United Way’s annual Community Baby Shower, organized by United Way’s Emerging Philanthropists.
Donation items include *new* packs of:
- Baby Clothes
- Digital Thermometers
- Potty Chairs
- Baby Food (non-perishable)
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
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