by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
OLATHE — Six years ago, Sara Lopez, her husband and their young son immigrated to the United Statesfrom Mexico. Employment opportunities brought them to St. Paul Parish here, where the young mother struggled to settle into a new community and a new culture.
The greatest barrier to successful adjustment, she found, was her inability to speak English. Although she was eagerto learn, she didn’t know who to ask for help.
“One of my [English language] teacherstold me about Mother-to-Mother, and I went just to experiment and hear the people speaking English,” said Lopez. “Now I have a good friend.”
That friend is Church of the Ascension, Overland Park, parishioner Chris Malmgren. At the same time Lopez Malmgren waslooking for help with her English, was looking for a way to give back to her community. And she spoke Spanish.
It took Catholic Charities’ Mother-to-Mother (MtM) program to get the two young women together, but they have since established a friendship that has lasted to this day.
From mentor to friend
MtM is a mentoring program that matches a partner mother, who requires some kind of support, with a mentor mother who has the skills or experience needed to improve the lives of the partner and her children.
The coordinator of the MtM program in Johnson County, Carla Golden, said that when she matches up mothers, she looks at their interests and backgrounds, as well as how the mentor can help her partner.
“I was paired up with Sara to cross that language barrier and help her assimilate to the community and that sort of thing,” said Malmgren. “But anymore, I don’t think I help her that much — it’s just the friendship — but I think that’s important.”
And the friendship goes both ways, Malmgren said. She and her children, Drew and Hayley, have been enriched by their interaction with Lopez and her children — Jorge, and his little sister Leslie.
“My son is going into third grade and hers is going into fourth, so they have a lot of fun together,” said Malmgren. “Drew will learn Spanish from Jorge, and Jorge is able to learn the correct way of speaking English.”
Golden said this mentor/partner relationship is not unusual, and she pairs moms up hoping they will both be enriched through the relationship.
“I want them to have some things in common,” she said, “but I also want them to learn from each other.”
It takes all kinds
As program coordinator, Golden recruits and trains the mentors, who can range in age from young moms to grandmothers. They come from different backgrounds, but share a mutual desire to help other mothers and their children.
“Some of the support moms have been, or still are, single mothers, have been in an abusive relationship, or have dealt with drug and alcohol problems with their children,” she said. “They have a wide range of backgrounds and experience.”
The mentors receive two hours of training at their initiation. At the core of the training is a discussion of the need to set boundaries and the difference between “helping” and “rescuing.”
“The goal of the program is to help partner mothers grow in their self sufficiency and self-esteem, enhance their decision-making and problem solving skills, and strengthen their parenting skills,” said Golden.
Many partner mothers are referred to Golden by case workers at Catholic Charities. Other referrals may come from social workers, postpartum support groups, school counselors, teachers, churches, and hospital birthing centers.
Partner mothers go through a screening process before they’re admitted to the program and are matched with a mentor.
“They first fill out an application and are interviewed by me. Then a background check is done,” said Golden. “The mother must be willing to commit to being in the program for one year at least. In the interview processI learn about the woman’s background and interests, the issues she may be facing, and what her preferences are in terms of a mentor mom. Some like to have an older mentor and others prefer someone closer to them in age.”
Each month, Golden organizes a moms’ meeting where mentors and partners can interact with one another and get to know other moms in the program.
At the monthly meetings, moms enjoy snacks and conversation and exchange magazines and coupons. The meetings include a speaker or a planned program geared toward mothers, and there is always a play area staffed by volunteers, where moms can leave their children.
Lopez said the monthly meetings are one of her favorite aspects of the program.
“Sometimes they have speakers who talk about things like nutrition, and sometimes they have programs on beauty or different things,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot, and my son loves being there.”
Outside the monthly meetings, it’s up to the mentors and partners to determine how much time they spend together. Malmgren estimates that she and Lopez spend at least a few hours each month having coffee together or taking their children to a park.
“We always get together for the monthly meetings, and then we try to get together at least once again within that month,” said Malmgren. “Also, there are phone calls; we swap stories about what we’re doing.”
Lopez said the phone calls are important.
“I feel like Chris supports me, and I can call her whenever I have a problem,” she said.
Golden believes, in fact, that one of the greatest gifts mentor mothers give is their willingness to listen.
“That, along with being emotionally supportive and encouraging, can make a big difference in the life of a mom who is struggling with all the demands of being a good parent,” she said.
Malmgren has no regrets about her decision to become involve in the MtM program and said she would encourage other mothers to do the same.
“I think it’s a great way to meetsomebody who is probably outside your normal circle of friends and can give you a totally different perspective on life,” she said.
Although MtM relationships always start out with a mentor mom helping her partner mom, often they end up as good friends simply helping one another — and that’s what makesit worth all the effort Golden pours into facilitating these relationships.
“This job gives me the opportunity to use my experience and skills to make a positive impact in the lives of women and their children,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a more rewarding job.”
To support MtM as a volunteer or through a donation, contact the nearest MtM office: Olathe: (913) 782-4077; Lawrence: (785) 841- 0838; Topeka: (785) 233-6300.