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Penny's thoughts on 'giving back'

January 15, 1999

She's in her early 60s, works in a local drug store and counts her "four nice law-abiding-citizen children" among her greatest blessings. She likes to read history - a favorite subject is the Holocaust - but the most remarkable thing about her may be that three times in the last 10 years she willingly accepted a volunteer assignment she knew might take her years to complete.

Let's call her Penny, though that isn't her real name. She works with the Parent-Child Center, a United Way agency in Washington County that helps parents learn to raise their children without resorting to physical or mental abuse. In the program, volunteers are paired with families in need, not only to help them develop other skills but also to be a friend to people who sometimes haven't experienced a lot of love or caring in their lives.

"Everybody needs help sometime," she said.

Her latest case was a young woman who'd had two babies by the time she was 15. In contrast to some, the young mother's parents were loving and caring, but sometimes, Penny said, "You need an outside point of view in your life."

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Because this young woman had a stable family life, Penny didn't have to spend time on basic cooking and cleaning skills.

"I've had some of them who didn't even know how to cook, and some of them are very leery about accepting anything from anybody," she said, adding that "you have to earn some people's trust."

But because this young woman didn't need any of that, they concentrated on the future, and how she would handle it.

"I just kind of talked to her about what she wanted to do with her life," she said.

"We'd get together once a week, and sometimes she'd call me at the drug store," she said.

A favorite outing was the library, Penny said, because the young woman liked to go, and they shared a love of reading.

"Sometimes they just need a friend," she said.

Judging someone's behavior is not part of being a friend, and Penny says she worked hard to avoid it, to get her clients to make their own choices.

"She'd say, 'What do you think?' and I'd tell her to write down the pros and the cons of the situation, and she'd decide herself," Penny said.

"This last girl had been dating the father of her child, and she realized that he wasn't what she needed. You try to encourage them and try to tell them what they have to offer,"she said.

When I tell Penny it sounds almost like being a Big Sister, she laughs and agrees.

"You have to be able to put yourself in anybody's shoes," she said.

Sometimes that means visiting a client in a neighborhood that's not so safe, Penny said, taking care not to wear any jewelry or leave anything in the car that even looks valuable. Sometimes, she said, she called police to let them know where she was going to be so they could keep an eye on her.

"You're never surprised by life because you come to realize that eveything is possible," she said.

And the good possibilities do become reality, Penny said. Her young client went back to school to earn her General Equivalency Diploma and is now ready to leave the program.

"We figure we've done all we can for her," Penny said.

After a short break, she said, she'll take on another client.

"I just feel that's why we're here, to give back. And I'm hoping in some way that I can make a difference," she said.

Penny may be modest about her contributions, but according to Greta Kinna, the parent aide coordinator, what she did helped the young woman turn the corner.

"She has gone from being depressed and quitting high school to a state where her self-image has really improved. She now has a GED and a job, too." Kinna said.

This began with the volunteer showing the young mother, by example, how to be a better parent, Keinna said, in a process referred to as "role modeling."

The volunteers, who go through a training course of their own, assess the family's needs and concerns and try their best to deal with them, bringing in other agencies and professionals, if necessary, Kinna said.

For example, for Saturday parenting classes held at the Presbyterian Church at the corner of Prospect and Washington Streets, there's a volunteer who will translate the teacher's instructions into Spanish.

The typical client works with an agency volunteer for about a year, Kinna said, but added that the relationship can go on much longer. Other agency programs include "Right from the Start," for teen mothers and a parent-advocate program, to provide a "friend in court" for teens who are dealing with the juvenile-justice system.

If you need some help with parenting skills, or would like more information about how to volunteer for one of the Parent-Child Center's programs, call (301) 791-2224.

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