The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Helping vulnerable kids & families succeed

Community Change

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The Power of Parenting

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Although Gloria Rodriguez, president and CEO of AVANCE Inc., grew up without money in the barrios of San Antonio, the love of a strong extended family kept her from ever feeling deprived. Years later, as a teacher, she saw children from the same harsh economic conditions fail to thrive, and she wondered: What could make the difference?

"I decided it was parenting," she said. "The role of the parent is so important to a child. I could work with children and help them catch up, but it would be so much easier to prevent the problem by starting early." And so, AVANCE, which takes its name from a Spanish word meaning "to advance," was born.

In 27 years, AVANCE has grown from one center focused on strengthening the family to nine chapters running 80 family resource centers throughout south Texas, plus one in Kansas City, Kan. About 7,000 adults and children, most from families that have lived in poverty for generations, benefit from the program each year. Scholars and organizations frequently cite AVANCE as a national model. The organization is now preparing to expand even further with centers in California.

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"When we started, we had all these isolated families who felt threatened by violence and crime," Rodriguez said. "No one knew their neighbors. They were overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness and despair. We started weekly neighborhood meetings where people would share their concerns. Soon they developed self-esteem and the desire and confidence to change their families' lives and their community."

Learning to parent by learning to play

The change often comes through AVANCE's core program, the Parent-Child Education Program, which is offered to expecting parents and those with children younger than 3. The first phase involves a nine-month course that includes classes on parenting, home visits, play time with their children, and helping connect them with more than 100 social-service agencies involved in AVANCE's work. The first phase also includes an unusual activity: toy-making. Through making toys, parents who never played as children learn the fun of games while developing a support network with other parents. The first phase leaves parents understanding that they are their children's best advocates, and they become community activists on their children's behalf, Rodriguez said.

The second phase often focuses on giving parents the tools they need to advance economically. AVANCE centers offer literacy, GED, and college classes, and they provide career counseling and job training. While parents take advantage of AVANCE's programs, the staff offers developmentally appropriate child care for the children at the centers.

Success in many forms

A 1991 study by the Carnegie Corporation of New York underscored AVANCE's success. The study demonstrated significant changes in knowledge, attitude, and behavior. In another study, 94 percent of the children of AVANCE participants graduated from high school, and 64 percent of the women who obtained a GED from AVANCE went on to attend college or a technical program.

The entry point for the family is the AVANCE Parenting/Early Childhood Education Program, which works with parents to build a child's academic, social, emotional, and physical skills.

"We start with the greatest hook: the love a mother has for her baby," said Rodriguez. "We tell them we're going to help their child get ready for school. They have high hopes and low expectations. When they realize that children do start learning early, that parents are the first teachers, they begin to understand they can change their own lives."

The staff reinforces this belief. Up to 80 percent of AVANCE employees participated in the program. Not only does the concentration help the neighborhoods' economies, it gives residents powerful role models, according to Rodriguez.

One way that AVANCE fosters a sense of community is through celebrations that reinforce the importance of the Mexican culture. Most focus on holidays, but one special night, graduation, celebrates the achievements of AVANCE participants.

"The parents walk across the stage with their children, who are dressed in caps and gowns," Rodriguez said. "The fathers who go through our fatherhood program then walk with their wives and children; the parents get a certificate and the children get books. Finally, the graduates who have earned their GED walk across the stage, and the other parents get to see where they can go with the next level, how they can strengthen their family even further. We hardly have a dry eye in the house."