A small empire

Luca Mokotoff, 2, and his mom Julie at Family Connections, Taylor Academy.

We’ve had the women’s movement, the mommy wars, the mommy track, the splash of infant brain research and even the Baby Einstein products.

But none address this constant: What’s a parent or caregiver to do at 4 p.m. when, alone again, one child is pitching a tantrum on the kitchen floor and the baby is shrieking in his crib upstairs? 

In the American ethos, raising children has always been a private affair--in the family, maybe extended family. Somehow you would simply know how. Meanwhile, those to learn from have faded away. Grandparents and other family are often not around. Neighborhoods, strangely, can be isolating places. Family and community have shredded.

Some watching this happen, however, quietly stepped up. Heights Parent Center began 28 years ago as a place for parents and children to come to play, listen, share the problem of the day, laugh and socialize, feel embraced and learn. 

The program settled into Milliken School for more than a decade. Then four years ago it moved to Taylor Academy. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District donates the space.

On Aug. 1, the program merged with a similar one, Shaker Family Center in Shaker Heights. The new organization is called Family Connections. 

The drop-in center at Taylor Academy is a bright room filled with child activities. Two boys, around three years old, zoom in circles chasing each other with fire hoses made of large pop it beads. How do I know they are fire hoses? Because of the “psushing psushing” sounds they are making to spray.

“I came first to Baby and Me, said Julie Mokotoff, mother of two-year-old Luca. “I get support for myself and meet other parents. We share our experiences in a warm creative environment.”

A dad gets up from the table to warm a bottle for his four month old. A mom sitting next to him delights in holding his baby. Another boy with a head full of curls also runs in circles with a toy stroller. “Slow, slow,” his mother urges, with little result.

“It is time for family support to be recognized as critical for healthy communities,” said Joanne Federman, the director, who headed the Shaker program. “The occasion of Heights Parent Center’s longtime director Louisa Oliver’s retirement seemed the right moment. The merger is part of her legacy. 

“We have had years of informal collaboration,” Federman said. “We believed that a more formal partnership would help get the word out on what we do to foundations, the county and the state.”

Indeed, the merger has made for a small empire. Each community has a drop-in center with programs, such as a series on the stresses of parenting. It also has programs at the libraries: The Play N Learn Center at the Shaker Main and Little Heights at the Lee Road Library. A number of programs reach out to the home and to parents and children in the schools.

“Initially we were focused on coming to us,” said drop-in coordinator Ellen Barrett. “Increasingly, we go to where parents and children are. More and more, the schools see the importance of a program like ours.” In all, the program serves about 2,000 children a year, from infancy to eight years old.

Family Connections may not have the cachet of a Gloria Steinem or a Baby Einstein, but it’s in the trenches where the real work of raising children goes on.

Family Connections is holding an information and fundraising breakfast, “Strong Families Build Strong Communities,” from 8 to 9 a.m. on Nov. 3 at the Cleveland Heights Community Center at Monticello Boulevard and Mayfield Road. Call 216-321-0079 to make a reservation. The event is free, but contributions are welcome.

Eleanor Mallet's column, "A Heights Observer," explores the nooks and crannies in the Heights. She can be reached at eleanormallet@yahoo.com.



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Volume 3, Issue 10, Posted 2:56 PM, 09.21.2010