Second steps to better parenting

Housing program provides training to its residents, the public

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Michelle is helping her little daughter’s vocabulary grow by suggesting bigger words, she said. “Oh, are you confused?,” she might offer, when the girl is trying to work out her own unsettled feelings.

Amanda is worried that her son is learning to expect a constant stream of new toys, since her ex provides them as rewards for nearly anything. That’s going to backfire, she figures. The parents have split, but they need to be consistent regarding treats and incentives. It won’t be easy, since Amanda’s ex prides himself on being a great provider.

Tiffany is concerned that her young son is rough with the dog. She doesn’t want to spank him, but she’s not sure what else to do.

Every parent, regardless of income or social status, could use a class like this. The discussion is frank and positive, there’s a seasoned coach and a common-sense curriculum. There’s also a break for family-style dinner where everyone can practice skills such as polite conversation.

It may seem remedial, but the folks who live in Second Step Housing may never have had the benefit of that sort of basic training.

“Some of them have never sat down to a meal with their own kids before,” said Second Step case manager Valerie Norris. “They know lots of different things but not this. They are street smart.”

Second Step caters to women and families who have been homeless. Some have recently emerged from the criminal justice system, while others are fleeing domestic violence. Most have custody of children. Nearly all are recovering from substance abuse.

Second Step offers them time-limited, low-rent housing in exchange for responsibilities and requirements designed to speed them toward self-sufficiency.

Tenants must develop individual life plans and take a life-skills course that covers everything from nutrition and personal safety to responsible renting and budgeting. It’s also recommended that they take the 10-week parenting class, offered at Aurora Place, Second Step’s apartment building near Vancouver Plaza in Orchards. The class is open to the public, too, free of charge.

“There’s a lot of heavy conversation,” said Norris. “The parents in the program just love it.” Some take it several times, she said, as their children grow through different stages of life.

Norris loves the parenting program, too — so much so, in fact, that when county budget cuts started to threaten it, she knew she had to step in and save it.

Norris and her husband, Joel Green, decided to donate $10,000 in matching funds. That’s about one-third of Norris’ Second Step salary. Normally, the couple makes donations to a variety of worthy local causes, Norris said, but this time they directed it all to the Second Step parenting program.

“I’m crazy about my clients and really enjoy them a lot,” she said. “When you are helping people who are at the bottom of a crisis, it’s wonderful to help them get back on their feet.”

A little more than $8,000 has come in so far, Norris said. She figures she and her husband will wait until April 15 to write their matching check.

Familiar plight

Norris, 55, knows well some of the dire circumstances her clients struggle with. She was born to parents who were both 15 years old — the oldest of four born by the time the parents were 20.

“We were really poor and homeless from time to time,” Norris said. Her mother dropped out of high school to raise the children while her father went to Whitman College and worked freeway construction during summers.

“We moved an awful lot,” she said. “I have a distinct memory when I was in fourth grade of having to leave in the middle of the night before the sheriff was going to kick us out the next morning.”

Her sense of being different than other kids — always shopping at thrift stores and wearing secondhand clothes to school — was acute and embarrassing, she said. Since then, she added, the gulf between the poor and the middle class has widened tremendously.

“I think it makes me aware of how people feel about being poor — especially children,” she said. She can understand why poor families sometimes spend money on things that seem frivolous, she said — the cable bill, for example. “It’s what everybody else has,” she said.

Eventually, the family’s “many years of vagabonding” came to an end, she said, with a move to eastern Massachusetts, where her father attended medical school. When he graduated and started working — and getting paid — as a doctor, “It was a huge thing.”

Norris went to Whitman College, where she majored in political science. She thought she would head for law school but instead wound up in naturopathic medical school. She moved to Vancouver with her “totally supportive” husband, Green, a management consultant, and opened a naturopathic practice.

But maintaining that office was too difficult for the mother of a young child. She eventually shut it down and, with her child in preschool, started volunteering with the YWCA’s Court Appointed Special Advocates program — advocating for foster children who get “lost in the court system,” she said.

The volunteer gig led to a full-time job with YW Housing, which eventually spun off from the YWCA to become Second Step Housing. Valerie is a case manager and the case management coordinator there; she also does case management work for the Vancouver Housing Authority.

“My life took a whole different turn,” she said.

The quarterly parenting class educates about 60 parents per year, Norris said. It is led by Teri Owen, Second Step’s housing services coordinator — who also shares her charges’ experience.

“I had an undiagnosed mental illness probably since puberty,” said Owen, 50. There were “bouts of normalcy” but more typical was drug abuse and jail time. The last time Owen got out of jail was about five years ago, she said. There was no shelter space — but she figured volunteering and taking classes would make her stand out. The first class she took was a Second Step tenant education class.

Now, she leads several classes for Second Step, from health to financial literacy.

“It makes sense that a person who has walked the walk is talking the talk with our clients,” she said. “I really learned what it takes to move forward.”

Owen was not a perfect parent, she added, and she’s still making amends with her own adult children.

Norris said there’s a “reparenting” aspect to the class.

“It’s difficult to provide consistency and structure for your children if you never had it in your own life,” she said. “This is the parenting they didn’t get. It’s one of those breaking-the-cycle things.”

On a recent Thursday night, the group started with a refresher on letting children make their own choices in order to learn from them. Then it was on to consequences — natural ones, like getting wet when you don’t wear your raincoat, and logical ones, such as getting grounded when you stay out later than agreed.

But how old is old enough for a grounding, one mom wanted to know. When is a time-out more appropriate? And how old is old enough to know how to handle the dog? These are basic parenting puzzles, whether you’re homeless or comfortably housed.

Young mom Querida Yerkes said her four-month old son (who slept on her lap during class) was breaking development records — needing more stimulation and solid food than she’d expected at this early stage. Her cheerful frustration brought nods of recognition from the others.

“I guess I have to throw my expectations out the window,” she said. “I can’t control him, but I can control myself. I’ll have to trust myself.”