Homelessness doesn't take a break over the summer ...

Commonwealth Parenting - Michelle Johnston, Family Educator

Commonwealth Parenting - Michelle Johnston, Family Educator

Unlike schools and students, homelessness doesn’t take a break over the summer; CARITAS receives and serves clients all year round, though they lose their student interns over the summer. Partnership for Families, and Carolyn Leung, Case Manager for CARITAS Shelter, saw a continuing need, and Michelle Johnston, Family Educator for our partner, Commonwealth Parenting, filled it for this summer.

Families staying in the CARITAS Shelter need help in so many areas; parenting skills is just one of them. One that is often overlooked in the overwhelming work to escape homelessness. Miss Michelle, as the residents call her, saw that helping with parenting skills spilled over into other areas of their lives, too.

As a Family Educator, Michelle has built a library of educational presentations, for any situation. “I went into this work at CARITAS earlier this summer with plans to use my regular presentations. And then they asked questions. And I put my regular presentations in reserve and opened up the floor for discussion,” she said. “I was supposed to come in for an hour a week; very quickly, one hour often became 2!”

CARITAS shelters families. They have about thirty residents at any given time, which right now translates to 12 families. Volunteers were supposed to entertain the children while the parents talked, but often the volunteers weren’t available and so the children became a part of the discussions. “In fact,” Michelle says, “they informed the discussions.” Michelle goes on. “We’re focusing on back-to-school issues right now. It is that time of year! I’m helping them learn tactics for talking to their children’s teachers. I’m talking with them about advocating on behalf of their child. Being able to talk to a teacher, a perceived authority figure, without getting defensive, or backing down, that’s a big step for many parents.” Learning to talk to others, and advocate for themselves, helps them with other life skills, too. “We’re also working to get them to understand that a stable home foundation is vitally important to young children. We understand, of course, that their home life is far from stable, living in a shelter, but there are ways for the parent to reassure the child with personal stability.” Michelle is helping the parents to find that stable grounding for themselves.

Michelle explains to the parents that they must have an open mind, to think outside their box. She also tells her families that Michelle’s ears are G-rated, maybe PG. The knee-jerk responses of spanking the child and yelling foul language need to be re-thought. “You are your child’s first, best teacher – don’t show him the wrong behaviors. You have other choices.” she tells them, repeatedly. “If you don’t want your child using offensive language, you shouldn't use offensive language.” “Do as I say, not as I do,” the parents counter. “Except children are visual learners,” Michelle explains. “They are going to do what they see their parents do. A better solution is that you practice what you preach.”

One of the fathers came to her recently. He told her that out of everything going on here [in the shelter], the service he’s getting the most out of at CARITAS is this parenting class. “It’s really opened my eyes to another way to discipline, Miss Michelle.“ Then he said, “My box is open this morning!”

Michelle added that through her work at CARITAS Shelter, she knows of at least two parents who have come for additional services through the Partnership. She is grateful to be part of our collaborative community of support. Although the summer is coming to an end, she is looking forward to doing this again next year, perhaps with expanded services for the families in the CARITAS shelter.