Raising Richmond: Ready to grow. Ready to know.

Partnership for Families Northside works to get Richmond’s littlest residents ready for kindergarten…and helps strengthen families in the process.

When the term “parenting class” gets thrown around, we tend to think in extremes.

We might picture a nervous mother- and father-to-be huddled together as they attempt to diaper a baby doll during an infant care class at their local hospital. Or, on the other hand, phrases like “court-ordered” and “child protective services” could come to mind.

For whatever reason, there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground—a place for those of us who fall somewhere in between the devoted new mommy and daddy and the parents whose life choices (both child-rearing and otherwise) require formal intervention from outside agencies.

This, according to Partnership for Families Northside Board Member Liz Pearce, is a problem.

“I joke around that I wish everybody would walk out of a parenting class with a T-shirt on that said, ‘I just went to a parenting class!’” laughs Pearce. “But,” she adds, “there’s still a stigma that if you take a class or ask for help, you’ve failed. It’s not really like that. This is the hardest job in the world.”

Since launching in 2004, Partnership for Families Northside (PFFN) has collaborated with local human services nonprofits to help provide North Richmond parents and caregivers of children age five and younger with support as they navigate the challenges inherent to this whole child-raising gig—for free.

Partnering organizations receive public and private funding for the services and programs they deliver as part of PFFN. Some of those private grants come from the Robins Foundation who currently provides nearly $2 million funding annually to support PFFN’s work in the North Richmond Community. Makes sense considering the leaders of the Robins Foundation came up with the idea for PPFN in the first place.

PFFN’s main focus is to get kids (and their families) ready for kindergarten. But they don’t just focus on academics. With the help of Drs. Craig and Sharon Ramey, a husband and wife team of world-renowned child development researchers, PFFN decided to go about a bit differently—more holistically, if you will.

“It was really [the Rameys’] framework that said if you want to help a person go from limited resources to [being] ready to enter kindergarten, just like everybody else that has lots of resources you have to take a community-wide approach,” Pearce explains.

Of course, for a community-wide approach to work, you need to find the right community. In deciding where to focus their efforts to bring more early childhood services into the city, the Robins Foundation felt North Richmond was their best bet. As Pearce explains, “The Northside has a unique diversity about it, within the history of Richmond and with the different kids of people that work and live around [there]…it was a rare opportunity to hit a lot of different demographics.”

PFFN’s service area currently includes 24 different neighborhoods that run the gamut from low income to affluent; according to the partnership’s website, this makes the area “the ideal site for PFFN’s mission to serve families from all walks of life.”

Originally, PFFN made its home in an office building on Laburnum, but they soon found that their location wasn’t conducive creating a sort of “one stop shop” for different areas and levels of family support. After attempts to acquire a building on Chamberlayne Avenue fell through, the Robins Foundation ended up constructing an entirely new space: the 20,600 square-foot Northside Family Learning Center (NFLC) on West Graham Road, just south of the intersection of Chamberlyane and Overbrook. NFLC opened its doors in 2010 and currently houses PFFN, as well as a daycare center.

While the daycare center and PFFN operate independently (the former is a branch of the VCU Health Systems Child Care Centers), the Partnership does actively promote its services to the families walking in and out of NFLC every day. According to Pearce, this fits right in with what PFFN is trying to accomplish with the space.

“The intention was for it to be a community building,” says Pearce. “[PFFN] would have all these offerings, and it was really up to the parents or the families or anybody in the community to engage as much or as little as they wanted.”

PFFN’s current offerings are as varied as the families it serves. When the partners took on the challenge of preparing North Richmond’s youngsters for kindergarten, they knew it wasn’t going to be just about the kids.

“We needed a whole-family outlook,” explains Pearce. “We needed things that prepare the whole family to prepare the child—those family strengthening activities.”

PFFN puts a huge emphasis on the importance of reading and literacy during the early childhood years, but their classes and services address needs in other (and sometimes more complicated) areas of family life as well. Parenting classes delve into a variety of topics, including child development, discipline techniques, and the invaluable role of fathers. Families facing particularly challenging times can also use PFFN to connect with partnering organizations (specifically CHIP with Family Lifeline) to set up home visits so they can get the individualized support they need. PFFN also includes organizations focused on securing affordable housing, child care, and medical care for those in need.

In addition to the parenting-focused courses, PFFN offers classes geared towards community members looking to acquire new skills. Current courses include adult literacy, computer skills, personal finance, job searching techniques, and more. As interest in PFFN grows, more and more classes are being worked into the schedule, including the recent addition of parent-child art and music workshops.

“It’s not all about social services,” says Pearce. “That, to me, is a big success of it…it’s not just there if you need help. It’s there for fun and education and empowerment.”

That empowerment component is key when you consider what really goes into PFFN’s efforts to prepare Northside families for kindergarten: teaching parents how to teach their children. As the aforementioned Drs. Craig and Sharon Ramey explain it, “Parents are their children’s first teachers. The best teaching by parents often occurs in the course of everyday activities. Research clearly shows that the most advantaged children are those whose parents are ‘there’ for them in the right ways, at the right time…recognizing and supporting their child’s individuality and right to learn more.”

No pressure, right?

But fear not. Pearce assures us that none of us are alone in this—in our panic, in our exhaustion, in our cluelessness, and in our devotion to our children.

“It cuts across all levels and neighborhoods. That’s the thing,” she says. “It really doesn’t matter what kind of house you live in. Everybody needs help at one time or another.”

More than likely, whatever help you need, the people at Partnership for Families Northside are ready–and more than willing–to give it. Don’t be afraid to take them up on it. There’s no shame in wanting to do (and be better for) your children.

As Pearce sees it, “Regardless of what the circumstances are now, there was a point in time when that parent looked at that teeny, tiny baby and said, ‘I’m going to do a good job.’ We all need to remember that, to get back to that moment.”

For more information on Partnership for Families Northside—including a full list of its partnering organizations, services, events, and more—visit kidsreadytolearn.org.

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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