When I joined Care Fresno, I was optimistic about my ability to change lives through a one-year Mission Care term. While I have been able to invest in the lives of many of the kids in my after school program, I have also grown in my awareness of what it means to invest in an entire community and neighborhood and what is necessary to make that happen.
Mission Care is a one-year commitment that may be renewed. It is difficult to establish the kind of long-term, community-wide change that I envisioned in a year, but I am more aware now than I was before of how that is not my role or timeframe. Some of the apartment complexes where Care Fresno serves tend to have a transitory population, while some, like the complex where I live, consist of people who have lived there 10, 20, even 40 years. Those neighbors have been there before me and will be living there after I move out; any community change efforts I would like to be involved with have to include them in order to affect the community as it currently exists and functions.
This year, Mission Care residents started implementing monthly “Parent Nights,” where we invite the parents/guardians of the kids in our after school programs to learn about after school program, see artwork the kids have created, hear how their kids are doing, and participate in activities so they can get to know us as well as one another. This is an onramp to neighborhood and community engagement. Parent Nights connect the after school program leaders to parents, and parents with each other.
Through Parent Nights, parents have had the opportunity to share what they would like after school program leaders to focus on with their kids as well as describe what they would like to see improved in their neighborhood. The Parks is creating a parent committee that will meet to discuss things that should be changed in their community and how they can be part of creating that change. At Summer Park, when parents were asked what they felt the community needed, they talked about the need for a homeless shelter. They then constructed one using cardboard and art supplies. Another month at Summer Park, parents worked together to build gingerbread houses. Through that, they were able to have fun, get to know one another, and see possibilities for how they could work together towards a common goal.
At the Courtyard, after initial Parent Nights didn’t yield a large showing of parents, the residents worked with the apartment management to contact parents and host a pizza party. This resulted in a room full of parents and an opportunity for the Courtyard residents to talk with the parents all at once. A following month, only two parents came to the Courtyard’s Parent Night. While the small number was discouraging, those two moms who came and had not known each other previously were able to have a lengthy conversation. Perhaps in time with the help of future Parent Nights, that interaction could develop into a friendship and support system between fellow parents/guardians and neighbors.
At my site, the residents pick up most of the kids from their apartments and drop them off after program. Going to the kids’ doors enables us to create opportunities for parents to talk with us. For our December parent night, instead of waiting for parents to come, we created goodie bags with cookies and hot chocolate packets and delivered them to the parents at home. For the parents that were available, they were thrilled by the treats and we were able to have some good conversations. We learned about an illness in a family, a kid’s enthusiasm regarding church and Bible study, and a dad’s desire for things he would like us to work on with his son.
If I can assist community members with connecting and sharing what they would like to see in their community, then they will be invested in the community in a way that extends beyond me and my Mission Care commitment. The parents, kids, and other community members are the ones who will remain and implement community changes; they will provide consistency and perpetuate momentum that new Mission Care residents will be able to come alongside without creating or initiating something from an outsider’s perspective.
It hasn’t been easy for many sites to have months of few or no parents show up after personal invites through house calls, phone calls, or flyers. For a Mission Care resident serving for a year, every month matters and adds up, leading to their departure from that neighborhood commitment. But taken from a longer-term perspective, a few months of low attendance is less problematic if connections can be facilitated and things put in place that will influence a community for years to come. While I am still learning what it means to effectively engage a community or neighborhood, I am more aware now of the necessity of engaging long-term community residents in that process. They can share what is needed in the community as well as what skills and resources they have that they could offer to the process. If we can get things up and running that will outlast Mission Care residents of a particular year or even Care Fresno in general, then community-wide change has a chance of occurring. It is important to mentor kids to develop a new generation of leaders; it is also important to do what we can to engage entire communities in addressing concerns that affect groups of people beyond an individual.