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As even playgroups go virtual, it’s often the parents who benefit most

A group working to prevent child abuse finds new ways to show up for clients. Online visits can still fill a void.
A playgroup of toddlers run by Layla's House in Sulfur Springs has moved to Zoom during the shutdown.
A playgroup of toddlers run by Layla's House in Sulfur Springs has moved to Zoom during the shutdown. [ Courtesy of Champions for Children ]
Published May 9, 2020
Updated May 9, 2020

If coordinating a Zoom meeting among colleagues seems challenging, try it with 3-year-olds.

Things can get noisy as toddlers see each other’s faces and babble excitedly at the screen. But it’s been rewarding for Maggie Sanchez, director of Growing Up Great, a program that organizes parent-child playgroups for Spanish-speaking and immigrant families in Town 'N Country.

Like everyone else, they’ve had to go virtual, which is quite a trick for a playgroup.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, they met in person for about an hour, with time for free play, acting out stories, doing crafts or having discussions. Facilitators taught coping skills and told parents how to get their children reading, even if they didn’t understand all the words themselves. Parents bonded with stories from the home.

The group’s new virtual meetings have tried to simulate what they had before the shutdown. But the sessions have taken on a new dimension: While the children still get involved, playgroup has become more a source of support for the parents in difficult times.

“It’s really important to validate what they’re feeling,” Sanchez said. “No bias, no judgment. ... But we know children can sense when they are stressed.”

Growing Up Great is one of several programs run by Champions For Children, a nonprofit organization focused on preventing child abuse ― something advocates and researchers expect to rise amid the stress and isolation of the pandemic. Many of the programs use playgroups and home visits to help accomplish their mission.

But not all of them are for families at high-risk of abuse, said Jonathan Goodman, director of development for Champions for Children. Many join simply to become better parents.

“Every family in Hillsborough County needs that support with parenting,” said Georgina Rivera, manager of Parents as Teachers, a program that helps parents navigate the early stages of childhood development. The staff works through home visits — which, like playgroups, now must be conducted virtually.

“Regardless of education or economic status, many parents do not know what to do with an 8-month-old baby,” Rivera said.

Her 15 parent educators have been checking in with families through Zoom visits.

Sydney Lidstone said she found the program after giving birth to her daughter, now 2. She also has a 1-year-old son.

“At first I worried if someone would judge me or think I was a bad mom,” she said. “Sometimes I think people think something is not right if you’re seeking help. But I loved the idea that someone could teach me how to teach my kid.”

During a recent “home visit” on Zoom, Lidstone’s toddlers grew excited to see a familiar face, their Parents as Teachers educator. She said she feels supported just to have someone still checking in.

“They’re more isolated now, those social connections are gone,” Rivera said of parents. “Keeping that one constant going is important, now more than ever.”

While technology isn’t a substitute for human interaction, she said the educators have been able to pick up on needs, connecting families with diapers, food and other essentials they may lack because of lost income.

Another Champions for Children program, Layla’s House, has shifted its playgroups and prenatal classes to Facebook, asking families to pick up weekly activity packets from the support center and post their photos and videos in the group. They are also distributing diapers and other materials at the pickups.

“One of the risk factors for child abuse is isolation,” said Latoya Randolph, director of Layla’s House. “Maintaining those connections to the outside world and people like you ― people with kids ― is so important.”

The staff at Layla's House prepares for parents to drive through and pick up diapers and activity kits for playgroups held on Facebook. [Courtesy Champions for Children]
The staff at Layla's House prepares for parents to drive through and pick up diapers and activity kits for playgroups held on Facebook. [Courtesy Champions for Children]

Daniel Schadrac, a program coordinator who teaches a 13-week course to fathers, said he’s seen an improvement with virtual classes.

“Attendance has been more consistent with transportation barriers eliminated,” he said. And many of his students appear more comfortable opening up and sharing their stories over the phone.

For some of the men, Schadrac said, the virtual interaction is a source of relief, as their case plans with the Florida Department of Children and Families remain in limbo with postponed court dates and only virtual visitation rights with their children.

“They’re left in this purgatory where they can’t do much,” he said. So staying connected helps them feel less alone.

Puppets have attended Zoom meetings to talk to kids about the coronavirus and what it means. [Courtesy of Champions for Children]
Puppets have attended Zoom meetings to talk to kids about the coronavirus and what it means. [Courtesy of Champions for Children]

Isabel Sanchez said she found the Growing Up Great program three years ago with her second son.

She remembered searching on Google for what to tell her firstborn when he was dealing with bullying in school. She didn’t want to give him advice that would impact his self-esteem or tell him to say something that hurt another kid. Now, she said, she has people she can turn to.

Many of the parenting skills taught through the course have helped during the pandemic, said Sanchez, who is not related to Maggie Sanchez, the program’s director.

“It’s normal for kids to have a lot of emotions and you don’t always know what happened," Isabel Sanchez said. "As a mom, sometimes if my kid is crying, I want to stop him from crying. But in the future, he would not be able to process that emotion because I had hindered that emotion.”

Staying calm and talking things through, she said, helps kids stay calm. She looks forward to the Zoom playgroups, where she gets to see other families in the same boat.

“In this situation, we are all in shock. But I feel like we can do it together," Sanchez said. "The kids are not alone either.”