Building a strong foundation for the families of South Boston is a goal of the Family Engagement Program at the South Boston Neighborhood House. The two women behind this program are Sarah Ryan – social worker and director of family engagement and Cheryl Itri – director of early education and care programs. The love for the work they do and the energy between them is palpable. They are committed to keeping the families of South Boston strong and prepared for the most important job of all – being a parent. This program focuses on three main components, parent education and support, school readiness from birth to age 3, and quality parent and child interaction. With support and guidance, this program helps foster growth and creates stable, healthy, nurturing families that go onto create happy children who are ready for school both emotionally and academically. The holidays can be a stressful time for parents but the SBNH (aka the Ollie) works to makes sure the season is a merry one.
We sat down with Sarah and Cheryl and had a little Q&A about the Ollie, the importance of family, the Holiday Helper program and their love of cake.
How long have you worked at SBNH?
Sarah: 10 years
Cheryl: 40 years! Yes, 40 years! On, October 1st, 2015 I will have completed 40 years. I started volunteering at the Ollie when I was 15 years old, basically because I was not attending high school due to forced busing and I was bored silly. In October, I was hired as the afternoon teen who was assigned to do arts & crafts with the children in the program. Back then, there were no rules about classroom capacity, having a license for the program, or meeting any kind of child/ teacher ratio’s, our only requirements is that the child was 5 years old.
What the best part about working for SBNH?
S: All the fame and glory (laughing)! Apart from that, SBNH is a settlement house and has sincerely remained true to its mission of “supporting family and community life” for over 100 years. I meet and work with parents and families from Andrew Square to City Point.
C: The South Boston Neighborhood House/SB Family Engagement has brought so much to our community. We have a menu of many activities and events, ranging from our welcome baby program, infant massage classes and parent education & support groups. If you come to visit or drop in with your child to one of our parent /child playgroups, you will be surrounded by a very diverse group of caregivers. We have single parents, two parent families, grandparents, and other caregivers who are participating in our program and speaking several different languages.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
S: Honestly, there is so much struggle in every family’s life. The most rewarding moments are when folks actually find what they need because of us and feel either real relief or real success.
C: We see many families walk through our doors, whether they are engaging in our activities, being one of our many summer youth employees or a seniors coming to hang out with their peers. The Ollie is a great asset to our community. One of the greatest parts of being a member of our team is when a parent or child stop you on the street and say, “thank you for helping me out when I needed someone.” Those words make me so proud to be part of the Ollie team.
What is a typical day for you at SBNH?
S: There is no typical day – which is fantastic! Generally, I am either running programs, planning future programs, working with parents individually (going to appointments or court, for example), working with children in our SBNH programs or eating cake with Cheryl.
C: Never the same day to day! Sometimes while working through one of the many small crisis we deal with daily, weekly or monthly, we jump right in and to solve it. We gather resources for the families or sometimes just be there to listen. Many of us at the Ollie have also experienced our own struggles – family heartbreak and other family situations that can knock you down. At the Ollie we are one big family and we support each other everyday. I can not even imagine my life with out the Ollie. I grew up at the Ollie, raised a family while working at the Ollie and my children learned so much as participants at the Ollie.
Do you want to talk about one important experience or moving experience in your program?
S: One important experience I have is shared laughter with parents. As a mother of three boys, I know that parenting is our “great equalizer.” I routinely botch the job of parenting, which I freely admit. While meeting with parents in groups or individually, I find that laughing about this “adventure” connects us all. When parents share laughter, they gain trust, build friendships and let go of a little stress. If parents leave my program feeling happier, lighter, less tense and more supported, I believe we have had a very important, moving experience.
C: The South Boston Neighborhood House/SB Family Engagement brings so much to our community. We have a menu of many activities and events, ranging from our Welcome Baby Program, infant massage classes and Parent Education & Support Groups. If you come visit or drop in with your child to one of our a parent/child playgroups, you will be surrounded by a very diverse group of caregivers. We have single parents, two parent families, grandparents, and other caregivers who are participating in our program, speaking several different languages.
Family engagement means working with the whole family. Many times we find out that a family may need some other type of support just by talking to them in one of our groups. When Sarah and myself are out and about in the community, whether it is personal or work related, families are comfortable enough to come up and approach us. It’s amazing.
Does the Holiday Helper program help your program directly?
S: The Holiday Helper program does benefit a number of the families I work with individually and in groups.
C: Kathy Lafferty works her magic every year by reaching out to neighborhood business, large business and individuals to sponsor one of the families or even donate a gift or two. The families who receive our help are working families who do not want their children to not experience the joy of Christmas but really have no funds in their budget to even buy the everyday necessary like socks and underwear, forget about the popular toys or video games that all of their friends will be receiving.
So if you are having or attending an ugly sweater party, a holiday get together with families, friends or co- workers consider asking everyone to bring in a item to help this program. Hats, gloves, socks anything donation will reach a family in need. Another item that is really needed is gift cards for the tweens, because we can all remember those days when we hated what our parents or relatives picked out for us at Christmas, and so wished we could had that other sweatshirt, store gift cards make that happen.
Favorite thing about working with each other?
S: Cheryl is an endless source of laughter and inspiration for me. Cheryl constantly moves forward, pushing me to do better and more for our families. I don’t know how she has kept her passion for child and family work all these years, how she manages to derail so much technology so quickly, or how Macy’s (Cheryl works there part-time) continues to turn a profit, but we all win because of Cheryl!
C: Both Sarah and I work as a great team. Our offices are across from each other and there are many times either one would call out to the other about a program, family, or whatever and the other person is either working on this same thing or just thought about it. I think what works with me and Sarah is we provide each other with lots of support, hugs and of course cake. Because cake always washes those problems away (laughing).
If you would like to become a Holiday Help, you can email Kathy Lafferty at SBNH – [email protected]
If you would like to drop off cake to Sarah and Cheryl to thank them for their hard work, the address of SBNH is 136 H Street.
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Cheryl & Sarah bring laughter and energy into the Ollie office everyday. Their commitment to the South Boston community is unfailing. I am proud to be a part of their family engagement team and I love my job because of these two ladies. Thank you, Caught in Southie, for recognizing these fabulous women.