Hispanic kids and parents find support, community through Prepares program
When Maricela Rodriguez’s children were small, she realized how important it was to engage them with books and creative play.
Rodriguez also realized the importance of having a good parenting role model for herself, so she joined a play group with her daughter. Over time, Rodriguez became more involved in learning about parenting, led a story time group at her parish and — now that her kids are 10 and 13 — has become that role model for other moms.
“You don’t need to be perfect to be a role model, but empathetic,” said Rodriguez, a member of St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Bellevue. “We all struggle. We all make mistakes.”
Rodriguez is a volunteer facilitator for the “Jugando con Amor” (“Play with Love”) group that meets at St. Madeleine Sophie Parish in Bellevue. Another group meets at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Everett.
The free groups are a program of Prepares, a statewide initiative of the state’s bishops that provides support for families from pregnancy to age 5. In the Archdiocese of Seattle, Prepares is coordinated through Catholic Community Services of Western Washington.
The Play with Love groups are targeted to Spanish-speaking families, developed “in response to a need that was brought to us by the Hispanic moms,” said Donna Cheesebrough, Prepares’ program manager for Western Washington.
“They wanted a place to build community, since many of them don’t have family here,” she said. “We wanted to find a way to mentor moms to do constructive play with children.”
A direct encounter with families
Three-year-old Rodrigo Aldan and Mayra Chavoya enjoy story time during the Play with Love group at St. Madeleine Sophie Parish in Bellevue. In the background are Jedi Pirillo, 4, and Yaqueline Rivera. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Mentoring parents is one way Prepares, launched in 2014, helps Catholics “walk the journey” with families who lack a local support network. Assistance — free and provided at the parish level — can range from diapers and clothing to parenting classes, to the emotional support of “companions” who work directly with moms and dads.
In the archdiocese, nearly 100 volunteers are directly accompanying more than 150 families, said Erin Maguire, a CCS network builder who oversees the Prepares program in Western Washington. Hundreds more parishioners support Prepares by donating and participating in special events. Prepares is active in nearly 70 parishes in Western Washington (152 statewide) and has served 8,300 families across the state since 2014, she said.
“Prepares is ever-growing. We’re constantly onboarding new parishes,” Maguire said. The opportunity “to really join our parishioners in direct encounter with families is a beautiful thing.”
Many of the families helped by Prepares don’t have family here, she said. They may be struggling to find employment or to be good parents. The Prepares staff provides training to make sure volunteer mentors have “all the skills and gifts necessary,” Maguire said. “Some of them are really walking the journey with families. It is a journey and it can be bumpy.”
During a recent retreat, parish Prepares leaders agreed their most significant work as mentors is listening to families and letting them know they’re important.
“So many of our moms and dads don’t have anybody to tell them, ‘You are a good mom, you’re doing a good job,’” Maguire said. For mentors, “those are the beautiful moments when they’re able to share that with a parent.”
Committed to the community
Every Wednesday during the school year, moms and other caregivers gather with their combined 15 kids (up to age 5) for Play with Love at St. Madeleine Sophie. The group, guided by Rodriguez and other trained facilitators, draws members from nearby St. Louise Parish in Bellevue and St. Anthony Parish in Renton, as well as non-Catholics.
“Everyone is welcome,” Rodriguez said. “This program highlights how our church is committed to the community.”
Play with Love is another way for the parish to extend its outreach, said Loretta Sursely, St. Madeleine Sophie’s pastoral coordinator. She expressed hope that participants will know “regardless of where they go to worship on Sunday … the church is here to support them.”
Although modeled on a school readiness program called “Play and Learn,” the Prepares group focuses on social development more than academics, said Teresa Cacho-Govea, an area coordinator for Prepares.
“We laugh. We love,” she said. “And the kids are getting the social and emotional skills they need.”
Each 90-minute session opens with free play — coloring, playing with cars or creating with Play-Doh. It can provide good teaching moments, Cacho-Govea said.
“The most important thing for caregivers and parents during this time is for us to watch for conflicts,” she said. “The role of the facilitator is to teach kids how to share.”
Then they move into more-structured activities, which help children learn how to make transitions. There’s snack time, craft time, and circle time, when books are read, songs are sung and finger plays are taught. The session ends with a focus on dancing, jumping and moving.
The program not only helps parents learn how to be “the first teacher for their kids,” Cacho-Govea said, but also “brings families together and empowers friendships.”
Sandra Cabrales, a St. Anthony parishioner, said the group allows her to spend distraction-free quality time with her children, Josue, 4, and Elisa, 22 months. And she has been impressed with the volunteer facilitators, including Rodriguez.
“Maricela has God in her heart,” Cabrales said. “She shows the parents how to be patient with the kids. This is really good for moms to know.”
Diana Pirillo and her daughter Jedi, 4, draw during another of the group’s structured activities for caregivers and kids. Photo: Stephen Brashear
A mission shared as family
Rodriguez sees the Play with Love group as a way to expand the Spanish-speaking community’s view of the church — “not only as a place to pray, go to Mass and receive the sacraments, but … as our second home,” she said. “This is a way immigrants can build relationships and build an extended family.”
When the program was wrapping up at the end of last school year, many of the parents wanted to continue meeting more informally over the summer. So they took outings to local parks, which helped build strong relationships, Rodriguez said.
The true blessing, she said, is when the families start trusting her and sharing their stories.
Even though many of the parents are not practicing Catholics, she said, “if they are struggling with something, they ask me, ‘Can you pray for us?’”
Her experiences with Play with Love have pulled her own family closer together, Rodriguez said. Her daughter, an eighth-grader at St. Madeleine Sophie School, likes to stop by and visit the group. At dinner, her husband and son ask about the day’s activities. “I feel like the program has become a mission we share as a family,” she said.
And it’s a way to live out her faith for others.
“I ask God to guide me so I can be an instrument for him,” she said. “All that I do, I do from the bottom of my heart.”
Prepares and 'Play with Love'
Prepares is an outreach initiative of the state’s bishops, providing free support for pregnant women and families with children up to age 5. It is open to people of all faiths and backgrounds.
Learn more at preparesforlife.org.
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