In New Rochelle, NY, (a city of 77,000), one elementary school took steps to improve quality of life beyond their students—by reaching out to moms in need. Columbus Elementary School, where 77 percent of students are of Hispanic heritage and 82 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, found that many mothers (particularly those who only spoke Spanish or limited English) were struggling with feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and at times, depressed. To create a foundation of support, Columbus Elementary School formed “Columbus Moms Group.”
Sonia Nunez, the school’s principal, explains why “Columbus Moms Group” was needed, what it does, and how it can be a model for other schools and districts throughout the country.
Q: Was there a singular moment that sparked the formation of Columbus Moms Group?
A: During the 2003-04 school year, a mother of one of our students committed suicide. She was a young woman and apparently took her life because she was overwhelmed and depressed with the stresses and losses of being a new immigrant.
Q: What was the reaction in New Rochelle at the Columbus School?
Many Columbus mothers reported to our school’s social worker that they, too, often felt depressed, sad, isolated, and anxious. At the time, there weren’t many Spanish speaking mental health providers in the community and the moms were not comfortable seeking help for sensitive issues. Shortly afterward, the school social worker arranged to have two psychiatrists come to school to address these feelings. More than 100 community members came to that meeting and the conversation focused on the importance of seeking help for depression.
Q: What happened after that first meeting?
It quickly evolved into a weekly psycho-social support group, led in Spanish, for about 30-40 women that starts right after the moms drop off their children at school on Friday mornings. Babysitting for younger children is provided here at the school.
Q: What are the particular problems these mothers face?
We talk about critical issues such as navigating the U.S. health insurance system; accessing public library services; obtaining nutrition information geared to incorporating Mexican cultural foods; maintaining mental and physical health; and preventing domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Q: Who selects the topics for discussion?
A: In the beginning, two social workers – one from our school and another from The Guidance Center of Westchester, a local mental health facility, decided on the topics based on their expertise and what they believed the group needed. Over the years, the group has often expressed interest in certain topics and we make sure to be responsive to their requests.
Q: Who leads these groups?
A: I am blessed with the most dynamic school-based social worker, and in fact, it was Caryn Da’Loia who started this program from the beginning. It was Caryn who identified the need and ran with it. To this day, she is the one who runs Columbus Moms Group. She’s brought in all kinds of speakers including psychiatrists, nutritionists, nurses, school officials, and lawmakers. When we don’t have speakers, Caryn leads the discussions and I stop by and participate as often as I can.
Q: Why is it important for you, the principal of Columbus School, to support moms in this way -- separate from simply supporting them as parents of your students?
My goal continues to be decreasing feelings of isolation. I also want moms to become more involved in the education of their children. I know that by helping these women, I am helping their children.
Q: As a leader in education, how unique is this kind of program? Do you think schools can emulate this model for other populations?
A: According to its members, Columbus Moms Group continues to be a place to gather with friends, feel comfortable in the school, and set aside worries. It is particularly unique because the group was formed based upon the needs and desires of the moms in the group and programming continues to be scheduled with that focus.
This type of group could likely be replicated in other schools as long as there is a strong commitment to meeting the needs of a particular population of each community.
Q: If readers are interested in starting a similar program in their community, how do you suggest they get in touch with you? I am sure you would be a great resource.
A: Definitely. The best way to reach me is via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2014 @ Susan Newman, Ph.D.
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