09: Training Parents As Advocates

Parents have been at the heart of another key Hagedorn Foundation effort, focusing not on how the parents interact with their children at home, but on training them to be more effective advocates for their children in the community. It’s called the Parent Leadership Initiative.

On Long Island, this initiative arose from the Child Care Council of Suffolk, an advocacy and referral agency. Its executive director, Janet Walerstein, recalled attending a national conference where she heard from Elaine Zimmerman, executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Children, about a program for training parents to advocate for their children.

“She brought to this national conference some of the parents who had gone through some of the training, and I was just struck, because I had been a teacher in early childhood and in kindergarten,” Walerstein recalled. “It wasn’t so much parenting that I saw, but really being an advocate for your kid and how to do that.”

Walerstein brought Parent Leadership Initiative to Long Island in 2003. Before long, at the Long Island Community Foundation, she connected with Horace and Amy Hagedorn. “She always gave us some funding, but not specific for anything, just a general donation every year,” Walerstein said.

Before joining the Hagedorn Foundation, Parmely had been involved in funding the Parent Leadership Initiative through the Long Island Unitarian Fund at the Long Island Community Foundation. Once she became the Hagedorn Foundation’s program director for families, children, and youth, Parmely continued to fund the PLI. She became a regular at the initiative’s graduation ceremonies, which celebrated the completion of four months of training for parents. At these ceremonies, the graduates spoke movingly about ways they planned to use their training to shape public policy. Among the more than 800 graduates, several have gone into public service, including school boards and town council.

One of the earliest graduates was Glenda Jackson, whose experience in PLI helped prepare her for later roles in the Town of Huntington’s government. “I was very active in the community during high school years and college years, and I was married, had my daughter, and was in a little bit of a hiatus, just took a little bit of a time out to do family,” Jackson recalled. “Someone that I knew that had done the PLI program had referred me to it.”

The extensive time commitment did not deter her. She loved the program, and at the end of her training, like all PLI graduates, she had to choose a project that would put to work the advocacy skills and community involvement that the program had “refreshed and rejuvenated” for her.

“There was a Laundromat on Lowndes Avenue, and there were some zoning issues with it,” Jackson recalled. “Somehow, they allowed it to go into a community that was residential.” She and others fought long and hard, but the Laundromat went ahead. “However, we were able to get that area rezoned so that no additional commercial entities would be able to go there.”

Later, Jackson ended up spending six or seven years as the Huntington coordinator for PLI. Then she was appointed to the town’s zoning appeals board, appointed to the town board and ultimately elected and re-elected. Since the town provided some funding for PLI, Jackson’s new positions in town government made it impossible for her to continue as the program’s town coordinator. But she never forgot the lessons she learned: bipartisanship, consensus-building, and working with the community and the government.

“I totally believe in the program. I think that people take a lot from it,” Jackson said. “Seeing the individuals that went through the program, the ones that really had little to say, if anything, and then, by the time they’ve finished it, it was almost like a new individual. It’s amazing to see that whole thing evolve.”

Over the years, Hagedorn funding has helped the initiative to grow in scope. “It’s expanded,” Walerstein said. “We’re now in Nassau as well.” The foundation’s support has also enabled PLI to have a full-time director and to provide a civics component in the training. “It put us on the map,” Walerstein said. “We couldn’t have done that without them.”

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