For families going through a difficult time, whether financially or emotionally, it’s sometimes the simpler things that make a difference. NHPR’s Jason Moon reports on a program in Portsmouth that offers one of those simple things – a meal and a little time to relax.
In a cafeteria at the Portsmouth Community Campus – a complex that houses several non-profits, about 10 families, each with small children, sit down for a meal of sandwiches and salads. Tables have been pushed together and big groups of parents and children talk and laugh over their meals.
Anthony Porter of North Hampton has been coming to these dinners for over 15 years.
“One thing I have seen over the years is a lot of single parents that come here. And this is a good outreach for support for them. I like to see people come here who are a little bit scared, don’t know what to expect – just make them feel welcome.”
Porter is welcoming those new families to a program called Family Fun Night, hosted by the non-profit Families First Health & Support Center. Allison Dillon works for Families First and coordinates the free, weekly event.
“It’s for families who might be going through some challenging times in their day-to-day lives that could just use an evening free of worries for a couple hours. We can’t fix their problems but we can offer an outlet so that they can come and just sit down together and a nice healthy meal.”
Dillon says the families who come, do so for all sorts of reasons. Some are going through difficult divorces, some are between homes. Others just stop by after a particularly rough patch.
Families First advertises the program at schools, welfare offices, and public housing. They also reach out to the patients who come to Families First for a variety of health care services. Others find their way here via word of mouth.
After the meal, volunteers with Families First take the children to play at a nearby playground, leaving the adults free to talk amongst themselves. Dillon says sometimes the group will take up a specific parenting issue, or a challenge that one of them is facing. But mostly, she says, they just talk.
“Cause a lot of times they’ll find something in common among each other, and they can develop a friendship with each other and that goes far.”
Sheryl Neadeau is sitting next to a friend that she made at Family Fun Night. She says it’s hard to meet other people when you spend all your time parenting.
“It is nice to be able to sit down and relax for an hour or so and meet other people, other parents – get to know more people out there.”
For others like Peter Wilkins, the evening provides an opportunity to pick up parenting skills. Wilkins is legal guardian to his great grandnephew, Isaiah.
“We were looking for services that would help us learn more about parenting. We are in our 60s and so to have a 10-year-old…None of the people in our circle have young children. I mean my grandchildren are older than Isaiah.”
The children make connections here, too. 11 year-old Lydia Menendez says she was nervous the first time she came with her father, but pretty soon she started to look forward to coming back each week.
“It’s been nice because I don’t have as many friends as other people in my class. So it’s nice to have more friends here.”
After the parents and children have their time apart, they reconvene for a family activity. Tonight it’s an egg drop, where each child –with the help of a parent–builds a container to save the egg when it’s dropped from a balcony.
The families crowd around one giant table, gluing cotton balls to cups and fashioning plastic bags into parachutes.
Dillon, the program’s coordinator, says activities like these provide examples of good parenting techniques.
“I think we are teaching skills, you know without trying too hard, we’re teaching them a lot of positive things that they can take back into the home, especially dinner conversation. This can help. This can lead to other positive experiences.”
Dillon says over the years, she’s watched some families attend the program for years and then stop coming when they no longer need the support. Some, she says, even come back as volunteers to help other families have a night off.