“Parenting center opens in Danbury: ‘We are an organization of hope’
by: Julia Perkins
A Saint Joseph Parenting Center is opening in Danbury. SJPC provides parenting-education classes and other crucial programs to local families. The is an existing center in Stamford. Tuesday, February 1, 2022, Danbury, Conn.nn
Crystal Perkins, Saint Joseph Parenting Center, Danbury, CT Director Photo Credit: H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media DANBURY — Rhonda Neal credits her parents for shaping her into the person and mother that she is.
But for mothers and fathers who may have been neglected as children, parenting can be hard because they don’t always have positive experiences to learn from, she said.
“Environment plays a role in how they are raised,” said Neal, executive director of the Saint Joseph Parenting Center. “You can’t demonstrate something you haven’t learned.”
Saint Joseph Parenting Center is opening its second location in Danbury at 46 Stone St — a property close to downtown and accessible by public transportation. The center celebrates its opening with a ribbon cutting on Wednesday morning and will launch its first classes on March 1.
The nonprofit, which was founded in Stamford in 2009, will offer parenting education classes for fathers and mothers with children 12 and under.
Programs target families who may be at risk for child abuse and neglect, teaching parents about child development, communication, budgeting on limited resources, anger management, life skills and more.
“I want the parents to come in and understand that this is not a place where they are being judged, but where they are being loved and supported, so that we can realize our vision, which is to have children live in a world free of abuse and neglect,” said Crystal Perkins, director of the Danbury center.
Moving to Danbury has always been the organization’s goal, Neal said.
“Danbury is so far west that sometimes people forget about us,” she said. “We know there are needs here. I’m from Danbury, Crystal is from Danbury, so this is our home. And we want to see parents empowered.”
She said she’d like to expand to Bridgeport, Norwalk or even Port Chester, N.Y.
Working with Perkins at the center will be a case manager and volunteer manager. Neal will split her time between Danbury and Stamford, where more than 300 parents are served each year. Volunteers facilitate the classes.
The organization rents Sacred Heart Church’s property and has access to two buildings with offices, conference and counseling rooms, and the church’s cafe. The center operates on donors, grants and fundraising.
Classes are offered in English and Spanish, but the center hopes to add Portuguese courses in Danbury. The organization is non-secular, despite its name.
Parents are typically referred to the center through the court system, Department of Children and Families or other agencies and may have gotten in trouble for abuse or neglect of their children, Neal said. Some parents may struggle with addiction. While some parents are mandated to attend parenting classes, others join voluntarily.
“There isn’t a parent who couldn’t use the additional support and the support of the community,” Perkins said.
In Stamford, the center offers 28 general parenting classes, in addition to “Women’s Circle of Support” and “Dads are the Difference,” which launched after a $3.3 million federal grant last year to enhance the fatherhood programs.
The center moved classes to Zoom during COVID-19 and served about as many people in 2020 as it did in 2019 and 2021, Neal said.
Danbury’s general parenting and one of the fatherhood programs will launch on March 1, with full programming for dads ideally rolled out toward the end of the year. The women’s circle program will start in 2023, Perkins said. Initial classes will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays, but the center is considering a daytime course, she said.
Case management is available to refer parents to employment, housing and food resources, but the focus is parenting “because if we educate the parent then we’ll a greater impact on the child,” Neal said.
The center offers incentives, such as a $50 gift for their child if they complete 10 classes or a $100 gift if they finish 20 classes. Staff and volunteers show parents love and respect, Neal said.
“Because we’re non-clinical people (we) have a way of opening up, so we can really get to the root or the heart of the issue and build a plan alongside of them so that they’re family can be strengthened,” she said.
‘Organization of hope’
Neal joined the center in June 2019 as her father was dealing with a chronic illness. He had grown up in the “ghetto,” served in the military and became an executive at IBM and a professor at Westchester Community College, she said.
“As he was slipping away, I knew this was one way to honor his legacy, by supporting parents who may not have the support,” said Neal, whose daughter is 24.
Perkins, who has about 14 years of experience working with underserved children, was hired last year. She has 16-month-old and 2-year-old daughters, but was also a foster parent for three children. She decided to become a foster parent after volunteering at a camp for teen mothers where she connected with a nine-month-old baby.
“Through that experience I learned that children love unconditionally,” she said. “That just opened my eyes to the needs children have and my ability to be able to love them the way that we all need.”
Families’ problems with mental health, drug addiction and chronic absenteeism have been “amplified” due to COVID, Neal said. But the center aims to work with parents to “build a brighter future,” she said.