Housing agency offers support for struggling parents | December 16, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 16, 2011

Housing agency offers support for struggling parents

Program hopes to reach more groups, individuals in the community

by Angela Johnston

Like many parents, Nina Haletky struggled to make her relationship with her young son a positive one.

"It was a constant battle. I was reading different books and trying different things, but it's hard when you're a single mom and you can't talk with anyone," Haletky said. "I just didn't want to fight every single night. I wanted to control my temper and learn how to stay calm."

Now, with the help of Palo Alto Housing Corporation's parent-support services, Haletky's relationship with her 8-year-old son is improving every day.

Haletky began taking parenting classes offered by the nonprofit housing corporation, which manages the apartment complex she lives in, five years ago. The classes slowly evolved into an informal discussion group for low-income families, in which parents discuss problems and brainstorm solutions in an open and supportive forum.

"I was blown away by the strategies and how quickly my son's behavior changed because I changed," Haletky said. "I saw changes within a week."

Some of the most common concerns are routine-related, such as getting ready for school in the morning or getting the kids to bed at night, explained Sue Garber, a parenting coach hired by the housing corporation when they introduced parent-support services in 2005.

"We fix these problems by creating exercises that put responsibility on kids," she said. "We find the strengths of the parents and the children and utilize those strengths to move forward."

Haletky said the group has encouraged her to model her behavior so her son would emulate it. She uses strategies from "Positive Discipline," a guidebook the group uses, such as hosting family meetings and checking in to see how her son is feeling.

"Every kid needs a voice and a chance to make choices," she said. "I learned to involve my son in making rules and give him more responsibilities."

Kate Young, the director of resident services at the housing corporation, introduced the parent-support services along with Garber, a parent coach affiliated with Morrisey-Compton educational services.

"Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world," Young said. "A lot of parents reach out for support in one way or another, but those services aren't really available to the parents in low-income housing."

Haletky agreed and said that most people who live in low-income housing can't afford to pay for counseling services or buy self-help books.

Haletky and a group of mothers meet once a month in a small classroom off the main community room at Arastradero Park apartments on Arastradero Road near El Camino Real in Palo Alto. The community center is a new addition to the apartment complex and features a big-screen TV on which kids can play video games while their parents meet. The housing corporation also offers complementary childcare and healthy dinners during the parenting sessions.

Garber leads discussions based off "Positive Discipline," a popular book written in the 1980s by Jane Nelsen.

"We provide each parent a free copy of the book in English or Spanish," she said.

Haletky said even though the group lacks an interpreter, many of the stronger English speakers pair up with Spanish speakers who need help.

"We have formed a really strong neighborhood community," Haletky said. "It's been amazing, and I'm really lucky.

"We share stories and talk about our situations. It's so nice to realize that I'm not alone, and it isn't just me who's struggling."

Garber explained parents tend to feel isolated, and some parents don't want to admit they need help. She said she is amazed at how supportive and understanding the participants have been so far.

"This group has been so honest, open and non-judgmental. It's very emotional, and it's really impressive how much empathy and support there is," Garber said.

Recently the housing corporation added individualized coaching to its support services, which allows parents to participate in two, one-hour sessions with Garber to address specific needs.

"It'll be a new concept, and I hope more people will join as they build trust with me," Garber said.

Haletky and a handful of other residents have already registered.

"We expect this number will grow as parents settle into the group and feel more comfortable expressing their needs," Young said.

Haletky is a first-grade teacher in Daly City and plans to take advantage of the new one-on-one counseling to talk with Garber about using positive discipline in her classroom.

As a Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund recipient of $5,000, the housing corporation has completed half of the parent-support group meetings funded by the grant. The support groups will continue for another six months at the Arastradero Park complex.

With the funding, Young and Garber hope the program will reach more parents in the community and provide more individual counseling opportunities

"We would like to see the group grow," Young said. "There are moms who we know would benefit from this program but just aren't coming yet, so we've asked each mother to bring one of their neighbors next time."

Haletky said she hopes the services will impact other families in the same way they helped her and her son.

"It's been life changing. I'd recommend it to anyone, anywhere."

Editorial Intern Angela Johnston can be emailed at ajohnston@paweekly.com.


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