The ties that bind: parent volunteers foster local connections

by Karina Coombs


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Melanie Ata and Emily Richardson. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

In some instances the very things that bring people to Carlisle make it difficult to get acclimated to the town. People like the quiet, small and rural feel of Carlisle, with its narrow winding tree-lined streets and large swaths of conservation land. But getting a chance to meet people can be difficult in the best of circumstances, and that is especially true when one has small children that aren’t yet in school.

When Melanie Ata of Stearns Street moved to Carlisle in 2002, she enjoyed the town, but didn’t know many people in it. With the birth of her daughter in 2007 she found herself feeling isolated. Ata, a nurse, didn’t know any other parents with young children and wasn’t sure how to find them aside from keeping her eyes out for moms walking with strollers. “I was used to being very busy and thought, what am I going to do in this town? What do people with young children do?”

Joy Mooiweer of Carlisle Pines Drive, childless when she moved here, recalls seeing a flyer for a local parent group when she was pregnant with her first child in 2007. She had every intention of joining, but by the time her son was born in 2008 the group was no longer active. Through word of mouth and, in the case of Mooiweer, a New Mom’s group sponsored by First Connections at Emerson Hospital, both women discovered the existence of age-based playgroups in town and secured invitations to join them. These playgroups, once part of a broader range of offerings from the Carlisle Parents Connection, allowed both women to discover a part of Carlisle that had been hidden from their view: the existence of other families with young children who were also looking to make local connections.

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Playgroup groupies. (left to right), Francesca and Chiara Steckel, Samantha and Matilda Rottenberg, Jennifer and Ellie Bridgman and Diane and Isaac Troppoli. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

Formed in 1995, the Carlisle Parents Connection (CPC) is a volunteer-led non-profit parent association for Carlisle families with children ranging from birth to five. The CPC is one of 11 such parenting associations supported by Concord-based First Connections, a non-profit that provides a wide range of services and educational support for families in 12 metro-west towns, including Hanscom Air Force Base. Funded in part by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care and operating as a division of the Justice Resource Institute (JRI), the goal of First Connections and its Parent Associations is to “work collaboratively to offer young families resources and referrals, parent education, playgroups and a myriad of social activities to assist parents in developing the skills they need to be involved and effective parents and to connect these parents to each other and to their communities.” (www.firstconnections.org/Parent-Leadership-Options.php).

The CPC maintains a board with the positions of chair, membership coordinator, playgroup coordinator and treasurer. Another member of the group also serves as a liaison with First Connections and attends monthly status meetings with its sister associations. The groups discuss events and activities that may be of common interest. The CPC maintains a website (www.carlisleparentsconnection.org) that provides useful local information and resources; a schedule of popular annual events for both members and non-members; membership information; and an email listserv that allows members to post questions, get referrals and donate or exchange items. Weekly age-based playgroups are scheduled and maintained and provide parents and children ample opportunities to meet and establish relationships before the children enter kindergarten together. CPC arranges parent-specific activities as well and has held tag sales, book club meetings, and Parent Night Out gatherings. In 1999 the group undertook a major fundraising effort to spearhead the restoration of Diment Park with the CPC raising $27,000 in private donations under the leadership of member Sharyl Stropkay

In 2008, however, when Ata and Mooiweer discovered the CPC playgroups, these benefits were but a fond memory of past members. Because the group is run solely by parent volunteers and children age out of it at five, the CPC had experienced a gap in succession and there was no longer a sitting Board. Ata, while enjoying her newfound connections with the playgrounds, sought to revive the organization in its entirety, “I needed interaction. I needed to meet more people.” In March 2009, after realizing that other playgroup members were as motivated to restart the group as she was, Ata hosted a “Revive the CPC” party. Many former board members and current playgroup members attended, and the Carlisle Parents Connection was restarted. Jennifer Derkazarian, an integral figure in the reformation of the organization, became the chair and established a new board, which Mooiweer became a part of. During the remainder of 2009 and into 2010, the CPC was able to hold annual events and get over 50 paying members. Ata and Mooiweer took over as co-chairs from 2010 to 2012 and kept the group running. Concerned with the long-term sustainability of the CPC after its successful re-launch, Mooiweer created a manual to detail the specifics involved in operating the group and running events. She doesn’t want other parents to be intimidated by volunteering their time to the board. “If new parents don’t get involved it could go away again and that would be really sad,” says Mooiweer.

Emily Richardson agrees that sustainability is a big concern and is currently serving as CPC co-chair along with Ata. After moving to Carlisle in 2011, Richardson was told about the group by various residents who understood its importance and she became a member. With a background in non-profit management, Richardson felt up to the challenge of heading the group even as a new resident, “I felt I was getting so much out of [the CPC] and enjoyed the people so much that I wanted to give back. And I knew I could do this.” The CPC’s 17th year is off to a good start with 50+ paying members. Along with Richardson and Ata, the board has Amy Smack as playgroup coordinator, Tina Wu as membership coordinator and Francesca Steckel as treasurer. Five playgroups, representing the Carlisle kindergarten classes of 2013 to 2017, have started. The first of the CPC’s annual events has already taken place - Wash a Fire Truck - and marks the beginning of a new membership year.  The New Baby Brunch will be held on October 13 from 10 AM to noon, and is one of the first events that brings in new families and first time parents. October 27 from 10 a.m. to noon marks the annual Halloween Party at Diment Park. Children are encouraged to come in costume with their families for games, crafts and food. All events are free for current members and $10 for non-members.

Details and schedules for all events may be found at the CPC website and are advertised in town. Annual membership is $30 and runs from September to mid-July with membership rates dropping to $15 in April as summer approaches. Interested families with children five and under are always welcome to join at any point during the year.

In terms of what they would like to bring to the organization in the future, Richardson hopes to find a way to include more dads both in planning and running events, and both Richardson and Ata see a need for website updating and possible fundraising down the road. They want to encourage members to come to the monthly planning meetings and contribute thoughts and ideas. “We don’t want [the CPC] to fizzle out because it took so much work to get it going again [and] it was a huge connection for me. I met so many people and my kids don’t even go to preschool in Carlisle. If not for CPC it would take me [until] kindergarten to get to know people,” says Ata. Richardson and Ata are also trying to create succession planning and hope to get new members comfortable with the idea of co-hosting events with an experienced member to limit the effects of attrition on the group. Richardson has continued working on Mooiweer’s manual, aware that people can be intimidated by running an organization or events—especially if they have never done anything like it before. Ata explains, “[We don’t want this] resting on anyone’s individual shoulders. [We] don’t want people to think they are doing it on their own.” The CPC also continues to support and maintain Carlisle’s only public playground for children under five with a recently organized clean-up effort in 2011 (Mosquito, 6/8/11, “Diment Park to receive spruce-up”). As a venue for many of their annual events, Diment Park is routinely maintained by the CPC with the group donating sand toys, time and money to this effort. Asked how Carlisle has changed for her now that she and her children have an active peer group through the Carlisle Parents Connection, Ata describes the town as “ A whole other place, a totally different place.”

A very special thanks to CPC member, Vanessa Moroney, without whose background information and introductions this article would not have been possible.