A new mom asks her mentor: ‘What do you mean, I’m a teacher?’

By JAN DEMERS

The late Fred Rogers of the beloved PBS show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” once said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” 

Jennifer McSweeney and Mary Fiorini are two such heroes.

“What a perfect boy. He weighed 4 pounds and was five weeks early,” McSweeney said of her young son when they entered Head Start a few years ago. “Kaleb and Mary taught me to go with the flow. I am not going to be a perfect parent but I can learn how to teach my son, now.”

She was referring to her son, Kaleb, now 5, and Fiorini, a 26-year Head Start teacher and home visitor. McSweeney today is a Head Start parent and she volunteers her time as a member of the Head Start Policy Council.

Since Kaleb was brand new, each week for an hour and a half, Mary visited Jennifer and her son in their home. Kaleb had a significant speech delay. Jennifer has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mary gave Jennifer reading material with suggestions on how she could spend time with her son to improve his ability to speak.

“Mary showed me that his delays are not who he is. She said, ‘Don’t treat him differently,’” McSweeney recalled.   

The encouragement that Mary gave Jennifer was a life lesson to be a teacher in her home. Mary sparked her imagination and showed Jennifer how life could be different when she entered into it with Kaleb.

Jennifer and Kaleb worked, played and spoke with each other each day. Each week they crossed off the days on the calendar until it was time for Mary to come again.

Along the way, Mary recognized leadership abilities in Jennifer. She suggested that Jennifer run for a position in Head Start’s Policy Council. Each Local Parent Committee elects one parent delegate to serve on the council. Policy Council has a role in development, review and approval of Head Start issues. It is part of the governance structure that includes the Board of Directors, executive director and Head Start director. Jennifer became a council member.

“At Policy Council we look at important issues that touch our children. Yes, there is preparation for school but we also look at children’s need for dental services, immunizations, the importance of reading to our children and other parenting skills,” McSweeney said.

Now, as Kaleb starts kindergarten and takes the bus all by himself, Jennifer takes on another role – she is an advocate for her son.

Head Start gives children the extra support they need to be ready for the future. It is also one of the best leadership training programs for parents. Home is the optimum place to train children and parents can be their most skilled teachers, sometimes with a little help.

Again, from Fred Rogers: “Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and leave their own bright patterns as they go.”

Jennifer and Mary are leaving a glorious pattern. 

Jan F. Demers is executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. Contact her at 862-2771 ext. 740, jdemers@cvoeo.org.

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