“Word of Mouth”—that’s the way many parents learn what’s going on in their neighborhood, their community, and their child’s school. When parents need the name of a good pediatrician, wonder if they should worry about a persistent cough, or need to know when the soccer sign-ups are, they usually ask a trusted neighbor or friend.
Building on this informal parent network was the idea behind Danbury’s Community Messengers Program. Five years ago, Community Messengers was launched by Danbury’s Promise for Children Partnership, an initiative focused on preparing all of Danbury’s children between the birth and age five for success in school.
The Partnership knew there was a gap between family services available in the Danbury community and parents’ knowledge about those services. Following a model created in Bridgeport, they developed six evening sessions for parents, each addressing a different topic—such as health, childcare, early education, etc. Parents were given dinner and childcare, and the sessions were conducted in English and Spanish. In return, the parents agreed to share what they learned with their neighbors and friends, and at events such as Early Childhood Fairs and school Open Houses.
The program was a success. Elizabeth Quiñonez, United Way's Community Engagement Coordinator, who oversees the program, fondly calls it “an octopus in the community” --with informational tentacles spreading to all corners of the city.
The parent messenger idea made so much sense that Danbury Public Schools decided to partner with the Promise. Why not use some of the trained messengers to help parents of their students, especially those new to the country, learn about what’s going on in the schools and how they can support their child’s education?
“The main goal was to welcome new families into the school, encourage them to come in, and provide interpretation,” Elizabeth says. This is especially valuable in Danbury, where many families are coming from foreign countries and are unfamiliar with how the school system works in the U.S. The schools piloted the program in five elementary schools, using the messengers as paid Parent Liaisons for 10 hours per month. So far, the pilot has been very successful.
The program benefits both the broad community of parents and the individual Parent Liaisons. Miguelina Matista, who graduated from the first Community Messengers program became a Parent Liaison at Pembroke Elementary, and is now hoping to transition to a career in the community.
“Working with my community makes me feel useful,” Miguelina says. “At the same time, I’m doing something that I enjoy, passing along the information and experiences that have been valuable to me as a mom. I serve as the bridge that parents need to connect with the school in a better way.”