Dinner & Conversation: Parent Café Builds Community and Strengthens Families in Butte County

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A delicious dinner, good conversation, babysitters to watch your children – and it’s all free. What more could you want for a great date night?

Hundreds of Butte County families are dropping in on monthly “café nights” hosted by Butte Parent Café, a program engaging parents in meaningful guided discussions with the goal of strengthening families.

“If you have strong families raising healthy children, you have stronger communities,” says Shauna Gowdy, Butte Parent Café coordinator. Now in its second year, Butte Parent Café has drawn about 400 parents to its meetings, which are held once a month at Chico Junior High School and once a month at the Oroville YMCA, usually running from 6 to 8 p.m. Families enjoy dinner together before children break away to play in a childcare area while parents dive into theme-based discussions.

art-1214-parent-cafe2The evenings tackle subjects related to parental resilience, social connections, finding support in times of need, knowledge of parenting and child development, and social and emotional competence of children – what organizers call the “Five Protective Factors” that form the backbone of Strengthening Families, a model that communities around the country have adopted to support families trying to create optimal environments in which children can thrive.

“We have grandparents, foster parents and adoptive parents attending. We have doctors, social workers and parents struggling with homelessness. It’s amazing to see the diversity,” says Justin Margolis, who also coordinates Butte Parent Café with Gowdy. They note that when parents allow themselves the time and space to share their experiences and concerns with other parents and caregivers, they come to realize that they are not alone.

“I love going because I can talk to other adults experiencing some of the same things I’m going through, and I can kind of vent a little bit,” says Chico resident Heather Whitacre, who has attended most of the Parent Café events this year. She says the program has succeeded in creating a safe place where parents and other caregivers can talk openly and honestly without having to feel vulnerable.

art-1214-parent-cafe3“It’s a chance to ask other parents, ‘Is your child going through this? How do you handle that?’ You get different perspectives,” says Whitacre, who heard about the program through her work as a resource and referral specialist at Valley Oak Children’s Services based in Chico.

Butte Parent Café was started by Valley Oak Children’s Services, a private nonprofit agency that provides child care referrals, subsidized child care programs, parent workshops and other services to families throughout Butte County. The organization had conducted a community needs assessment and learned that parents wanted a place to gather and share their questions, challenges and dreams for their families.

The group drafted a proposal for a program based on the Parent Café model promoted by a group called Be Strong Families/Strengthening Families Illinois and secured a grant from First 5 Butte County Children and Families Commission. Gowdy and Margolis have worked together to organize monthly events with themes like “creating positive relationships,” “encouragement,”  “well-being,” and “fatherhood.” In September, the program hosted a “Back to School” night and, with the help of local businesses like Office Depot, was able to give backpacks and school supplies to children.

This month’s theme will focus on social connections and finding concrete support in times of need. “During this time of year, families may be struggling with money. Budgets can be tight because it’s Christmas,” says Margolis. “Around the holidays, we try to focus on reaching out to each other, being there, and remembering the importance of having friends and family by our sides.”

Organizers say they hope to continue growing the program to reach more families and even expand into additional communities. Shasta County Child Abuse Prevention Coordinating Council is hosting Parent Café events in Redding, and Butte Parent Café recently received an additional grant to expand to Gridley, where the group held its first café last month. 

“The more support we get, the better parents we can be,” says Margolis.

For more information about Butte Parent Café, go to http://www.butteparentcafe.com or call (530) 899-4941.

Sonia Giordani-Johnston
About Sonia Giordani-Johnston

Sonia Giordani-Johnston is a freelance writer inspired by generous people who do small acts of kindness with great love. She lives in Redding with her husband, their four children, a dog and 12 chickens.

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