Illuminating Leadership Award Recipients Light the Way Toward Brighter Childhoods

Illuminating Leadership Award Recipients Light the Way Toward Brighter Childhoods

For several years, Illuminate Colorado has honored the contributions of exceptional individuals and organizations who have furthered our collective mission to strengthen families, organizations and communities to prevent child maltreatment. “The work that we do at Illuminate is never done in isolation, but always in collaboration. That is why we want to continue the tradition of lifting up others who are lighting the way toward better childhoods in Colorado,” said Jade Woodard, executive director of Illuminate Colorado, who hosted several virtual award presentations over the course of the last several weeks.  

Read about previous Illuminating Leadership Award recipients:

Ray Washington – Lori Moriarty Leadership Award

The Lori Moriarty Leadership Award is presented to an individual who has demonstrated a career that exemplifies the achievements and character displayed by the late Commander Lori Moriarty. Lori Moriarty, a former Children’s Trust Fund Board Member, 20 year law enforcement veteran, and founder of both the Colorado and National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, was unyielding in her efforts to educate professionals on prioritizing drug endangered children.

Ray Washington, founder and executive director of Bigger Than Me and Fatherhood Support Services was presented with the Lori Moriarty Leadership Award in recognition of his career of service to strengthen families by strengthening fathers. Washington is a father, grandparent and kinship provider. He is proudest of his children and his faith.

“I’m just a vehicle that’s gonna bring them to the services, that’s gonna help them understand it’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to share your emotion. It’s okay not to be where you might want to be, but have a plan to get there,” Washington said in the 2014 documentary “Finding Fatherhood: New Hope for Families in Colorado.” 

He has mentored and advocated for fathers across Colorado and filled the vacant father role for young men in his community for years. “When dads are involved in their children’s lives, the children do better – financially, educationally, emotionally and socially,” Washington said in a 2010 Colorado Community Media article. “When you stabilize the dad, you stabilize the family, and that helps stabilize a community.”

We were unable to hold a fireside chat with Ray, but the impact of his work cannot be overstated. Illuminate Colorado’s Executive Director Jade Woodard shared, “Over many years and in many spaces, you have been relentless in your advocacy to ensure community is represented and voices are lifted. You are a beacon of light and in our hearts, we believe that your advocacy and leadership has made Colorado a better place to raise a family and be a father.” 

Lisa Thomas – Courageous Leadership Award

The Courageous Leadership Award recognizes a person in elected office or public employee for distinguished service focused on the prevention of child maltreatment and strengthening families.

Lisa Thomas received the Courageous Leadership Award for her work supporting youth and families in Baca, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Prowers counties as the About F.A.C.E. coordinator for the Collaborative Management Program. She is involved in leading child sexual abuse prevention efforts, building protective factors in families, and implementing Circle of Parents in southeastern Colorado.

Due in part to Thomas’ efforts, Kiowa County was the first county in the state of Colorado to reach the tipping point to create a new standard of child safety in the community. “That was our dream come true,” she said. “We thought, you know what, if we can do anything, we can certainly tip Kiowa County!”

Hopefully with the work that we are doing well here down in southeastern Colorado, we can lead the way for other people, other counties as well,” Thomas said.

Constellation Philanthropy – Catalytic Leadership Award

The Catalytic Leadership Award honors an individual or organization that has invested or inspired philanthropic investment to accelerate the prevention of child maltreatment and strengthen families in Colorado.

Constellation Philanthropy received the Catalytic Leadership Award for its work connecting individual funders who work and learn together to make a difference in Colorado’s early childhood landscape. Members learn about issues affecting early childhood in Colorado, discover organizations creating change, and explore opportunities to co-invest, but members retain complete control of their philanthropic dollars

Kate Reinemund, executive director of Constellation Philanthropy, said that the organization is most proud of “seeing all of these awesome innovations, awesome ideas that have been deployed in the ecosystem really grow and come to life.” For the last seven years, Constellation has been “supporting leaders in however they want to be taking on the idea of innovation in their own work,” she said.

Constellation will be sunsetting at the end of 2021, but over the last seven years, the organization has supported 74 innovative projects with over $7 million, and 37 families are now equipped to continue funding work and innovation in the early childhood landscape. 

Dr. Courtney Everson – Innovative Leadership Award

The Innovative Leadership Award is presented to an individual or organization who has made significant contributions to the field of child maltreatment prevention.

Dr. Courtney Everson received the Innovative Leadership Award for her work as a member of the Substance Exposed Newborns Steering Committee, co-chair of the Substance Exposed Newborns Data & Research Work Group, and lead evaluator for the Colorado Partnership for Thriving Families. 

Everson said that her work as a researcher is at the intersection of public health, prevention science, and social policy. She is a senior researcher/project director for the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab at the University of Denver and concentrates on maternal and infant health, child well-being, positive youth development and family strengthening.

One of the big questions Everson’s work strives to answer is, “How can we think about using research and evaluation to really uplift health and well-being for families, to think about moving from a focus of ill-being to true well-being, to think about moving from intervention to prevention, to think about moving from disparity to equity.”

Community Leadership Awards

One of the most powerful gifts you can give to future generations of Coloradans is sharing your lived experiences with policymakers or contributing your story to the narrative in Colorado to promote positive community norms that strengthen families and create impactful systemic change. In recognition of this amazing gift, Illuminate created a NEW award category – The Community Leadership Awards – to recognize those individuals who have dedicated an extraordinary amount of their time and openly shared their experiences to further systemic change and strengthen families in Colorado. 

The Community Leadership Awards recognize those individuals who have dedicated an extraordinary amount of their time and openly shared their experiences to further systemic change and strengthen families in Colorado.

Adam Combs and Adrian Nuñez

Adam Combs and Adrian Nuñez received the Community Leadership Award for their work facilitating two Circle of Parents groups in Colorado Springs: Circle of Fathers and Fathers of Freedom. Circle of Fathers and Fathers of Freedom create a safe space for fathers to share their experiences, challenges and accomplishments with other fathers. Fathers of Freedom serves active duty and veteran fathers, and Circle of Fathers serves fathers statewide. 

Combs and Nuñez are looking forward to strengthening these Circles through in-person meetings and through Children’s Circle, a curriculum-based children’s program to build the social-emotional skills of the children of caregivers and parents attending Circles. 

Nuñez said that they were inspired to begin this work because “we realized that what we’re doing [with Circle of Parents], we’re able to break the cycle with a lot of things, especially when it comes to abuse.”

Combs said that this work is important for the community because “[t]he more we educate ourselves as parents, as fathers in our case, the better off our children can be to thrive.” 

In addition to this work, both fathers have been very open about their experiences parenting engaging with the media and even blogged on occasion to help create a stronger understanding in the community of how, together, we strengthen families and prevent child maltreatment.

A

Building a Fort on a Solid Foundation

by Adam Combs | Aug 25, 2021

Sometimes it is hard to quantify what it means to be a well-rounded parent, or in my case, father.  How many experiences should one provide their child?  How many activities should I be engaged in with her, personally?  How many lessons should she be signed up for?  I believe the answer is simple: as many as you both can handle.  That is just what we were doing until the pandemic hit and all our usual routines came to a screeching halt. 

A

RELEASE: One in Five Colorado Parents Say They Have No One to Turn to For Support

“The biggest reason I started this group was because being a stay at home father who is a combat veteran and has battled a lot of things over the years, at times have begun to feel isolated and withdrawn from the rest of society,” said Adrian Nunez, one of the founding members of the Circle of Parents group Fathers of Freedom, pictured with his two children.

Marilyn Fausset

Marilyn Fausset received the Community Leadership Award for her work as a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) advocate and co-chair of the Substance Exposed Newborns FASD Awareness Workgroup. 

Fausset was inspired to begin this work when she adopted two children with FASD. She said that when she retired from being a special education teacher, she wanted to work toward FASD awareness and education because she realized that “not everybody has that ability or that time.”

When asked what she would like to see change as a result of her advocacy, Fausset said, “I would like to see training for all professionals–anybody that we take our kids, even adults to–I would like all of them to know about FASD about the prevalence, and the effects, and the symptoms.” 

In addition to this work,  Fausset also helped launch the blog series Becoming FASD Aware, sharing the experiences of families impacted by FASD to strengthen families and build awareness, with her blog What good was his diagnosis anyway?

 

Diane Smith

Diane Smith received the Community Leadership Award for her work as a parent partner with Denver Parent Advocates Lending Support (DPALS) and chair of the Family Advisory Board to the Substance Exposed Newborns (SEN) Steering Committee.

DPALS connects families with parent partners like Smith to help them navigate the child welfare system through peer-to-peer support, and Smith uses her voice on the Family Advisory Board to identify barriers in seeking support and services, raise awareness about best practices when working with families, and inform priority-setting within the SEN Steering Committee to best serve the needs of families impacted by substance use.

Smith said that “Family Advisory Board gave me an opportunity to share with others, to share my story, to share my worries and fears, my concerns with our system, be able to be that systematic change, implement our desires, and also be there for support for others.” 

Smith is also passionate about the Strengthening Families™ Protective Factors framework because “we can foster that protective factor within our parents and the families that we’re working with, and we can strengthen and build them up to maybe have a voice of their own one day.”

She has been a mentor to countless other parents and caregivers and worked to inspire others to get involved in a deeper level to create and inform systemic change.

“It is important to involve families with lived experiences as voice partners in program improvements and systemic change because it is the best way for our systems to evolve. When people are trying to identify what works, what doesn’t work, and how we change things for the next family, it is important for families to give input and share their experience,” said Smith.

Toni Miner

Toni Miner received the Community Leadership Award for her work as a Circle of Parents in Recovery facilitator and outspoken inspiration to other families walking a similar path. Miner was inspired to begin this work because of her own recovery journey. “I want to be able to give back. I want help, like I said, really build that leadership in parents to help reduce that recidivism,” she said. 

Miner is most proud of watching parents in her Circles grow. “I watch parents come in very broken and feeling very alone . . . to see them become strong, wonderful people and wonderful parents, and to see them give back to each other and to help each other understand that they’re not alone,” she said.

In addition to hosting a local Circle group, Miner trains and coaches other Circle of Parents in Recovery facilitators helping to expand the capacity of other communities to support families impacted by substance use disorders.

Miner has seen the evidence that Circle of Parents strengthens families and builds protective factors. “Risk factors are not predictive factors because of protective factors, and I really believe that we are building those protective factors in families, and that we are serving families as a whole [through Circle of Parents],” she said.

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New Research Provides Insight and Recommendations for Preventing Child Sexual Abuse

New Research Provides Insight and Recommendations for Preventing Child Sexual Abuse

Denver (Nov. 10, 2021) – New research from Illuminate Colorado (Illuminate) examines data and trends related to child sexual abuse in Colorado and presents recommendations for preventing abuse statewide. The study also highlights known solutions to the problem of child sexual abuse for parents, professionals and policy makers alike. 

“We have a responsibility to help all children reach their full potential,” said Jade Woodard, executive director of Illuminate. “Ultimately, building awareness, knowledge, skills and confidence with adults, who are supported by communities, systems and policies to create safe environments, leverages the best of the evidence and expertise available and can result in the prevention of child sexual abuse.”

As part of the study, Illuminate surveyed Coloradans attitudes, knowledge and behaviors related to the prevention of child sexual abuse, analyzed child welfare data in Colorado and estimated the financial impact associated with the problem. From January of 2014 through December 2020 alone, more than 7,400 children in Colorado were identified as having been sexually abused, with an estimated financial cost of $1.5 billion to support these children on their journey toward healing. 

The survey of Coloradan found several opportunities to prevent child sexual abuse through awareness efforts including a concerning lack of use of anatomically correct terms for body parts with children. This language used around children at the earliest of ages promotes positive body image, self-confidence and parent-child communication, all important factors to preventing child sexual abuse. The use of anatomically correct terms also discourages abusers and in the event of abuse, anatomically correct terms help children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process.

Some key findings:

  • Less than half of parents (47%) say they typically use anatomically correct terms 
    • When informed that using these terms is a way to prevent child sexual abuse, 71% of parents said they would consider using anatomical terms. 
    • It is particularly important to reach men aged 18-54 with this information given that less than half of men (42%) reported using the proper terms.

“We’ve repeatedly heard stories that affirm the need to have clear and thoughtful ongoing conversations with children, starting before they are even verbal. Sex offenders report that when children used the proper words for their private parts, it was a deterrent. They knew those kids were having open conversations with trusted adults,” said Margaret M. Ochoa, child sexual abuse prevention specialist with the Colorado Department of Public Safety and cochair of the Colorado Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Coalition.

  • Survey results showed that while nearly half of parents (49%) did not have “the talk” with their parents when they were growing up, 66% of parents plan to have ongoing conversations with their children about sex or puberty. 

“This is a positive indication that generational attitudes are shifting in a way that supports the prevention of child sexual abuse,” said Woodard. “ But we still have a long way to go. What this study does show is that awareness and recognition of how we prevent child sexual abuse makes a difference.”

Recommendations for creating a Colorado where children grow up free from sexual abuse also highlighted in the brief include: 

  1. Funding strategic multi-year public awareness campaigns reaching all Coloradans to shift the norms related to child sexual abuse prevention.
  2. Training adults on their collective responsibility to prevent, recognize and respond to child sexual abuse.
  3. Expanding learning opportunities to support adults in building skills and confidence in approaching conversations about child sexual abuse prevention.
  4. Continuing to identify, engage in, and support policies and system improvements to prevent initial occurrence or reoccurrence of child sexual abuse.

Restoring Funding

Beginning in 2015, state General Fund resources had been addressing the need for adult education about child sexual abuse prevention through the The Colorado Child Abuse Prevention Trust Fund. However, when tough budget choices needed to be made in 2020, the yearly $250,000 funding was cut. While Colorado has a brighter financial outlook than at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, General Fund resources were not restored during the 2021 session despite being amended into the House version of the budget. Restoring general fund investments in the Colorado Children’s Trust Fund for successful child sexual abuse prevention programs allows the state to build from a place of strength and documented impact—ensuring Colorado children and families benefit from proven programming.

The Issue Brief “Creating a Colorado Where Children Grow Up Free From Sexual Abuse: An Issue Brief on the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse in Colorado.” was made possible, in large part, through the support of The Colorado Child Abuse Prevention Trust Fund in the Office of Early Childhood at the Colorado Department of Human Services, and in collaboration with well informed by experts and advocates who make up the Coalition.

Background on the Research 

Child welfare data and trends in Colorado are examined in the brief. For the five years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of children who were sexually abused had steadily risen in Colorado. From January 2014 through December 2020, more than 7,400 children in Colorado have been identified as sexual abuse victim/survivors. In 2020 alone, a year when reports of child maltreatment were dramatically down as a result of the pandemic, and subsequent quarantine and stay-at-home orders, over 1,000 substantiated reports  of child sexual abuse were made through the child welfare system in Colorado. Unfortunately, this does not account for all of the children who have not yet been identified. 

  • National research has shown that almost 73% of child victims don’t disclose their abuse to anyone for at least one year, 45% don’t tell anyone for almost five years, and many never disclose at all, making it difficult to confront the problem.  

The impact of trauma at a young age can last a lifetime, particularly without support and community programs to aid the process of healing. It is estimated that the average lifetime cost of sexual abuse per survivor is over $210,000. The brief estimates the financial price tag to support the Colorado children on their journey toward healing since 2014 at more than $1.5 billion.

Awareness & Social Norms

RECOMMENDATION 1: Fund strategic multi-year public awareness campaigns reaching all Coloradans to shift the norms related to child sexual abuse prevention by:

• Raising awareness among all adults of the need to model consent, healthy touch and safe, respectful ways to interact with children;
• Raising awareness among parents of the need to use anatomically correct terms with children; and
• Raising awareness among parents and caregivers of the positive norm of having ongoing conversations about healthy development.

Training & Practice

RECOMMENDATION 2: Train adults on their collective responsibility to promote healthy child development and prevent, recognize and respond to child sexual abuse by:
• Promoting training to parents, caregivers, professionals and community members to become better equipped to promote healthy development and prevent, recognize, and respond to child sexual abuse;
• Institutionalizing training with early childhood professionals to deepen understanding of healthy childhood development to be inclusive of sexual development;
• Collaborating with various communities impacted by disproportionate rates of child sexual abuse and counties with higher combined six-year rates of child sexual abuse; and
• Increasing knowledge of parents, caregivers, professionals and community members to identify and address vulnerable situations and environments involving older youth or youth in a position of power.

Training & Practice

RECOMMENDATION 3: Expand learning opportunities to support adults in building skills and confidence in approaching conversations about child sexual abuse prevention by:
• Integrating the formation of language, scripting, and practice into training courses
when appropriate to include terms and phrases adults can use when having discussions with family, friends, neighbors, and community members on creating safe environments and
• Expanding access to opportunities for families, including training and resources, on
having conversations with children on healthy development and sexuality of power.

Policy & Systemic Recommendations

RECOMMENDATION 4: Continue to identify, engage in, and support policies and system improvements to prevent initial occurrence or reoccurence of child sexual abuse by:
• Supporting organizations that serve children and youth in identifying needed policy changes to prevent child sexual abuse;
• Building the five “Protective Factors” in and around all families;
• Expanding comprehensive sexual education in Colorado as an additional means to prevent child sexual abuse;
• Promoting coordinated and innovative research efforts to better understand the incidence and prevalence of child sexual abuse in Colorado; and
• Continuing the Colorado Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Coalition.

Creating a Colorado Where Children Grow Up Free From Sexual Abuse: An Issue Brief on the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse in Colorado examines data and trends related to child sexual abuse in Colorado, highlights efforts to prevent this trauma and presents recommendations to advance prevention statewide.

This publication was made possible, in large part, with the support of the Colorado Child Abuse Prevention Trust Fundin the Office of Early Childhood at the Colorado Department of Human Services, members of the Colorado Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Coalition and research conducted by Vitale & Associates, in partnership with WPA Intelligence.

 

During my 30 years serving children and families, I have developed a deep appreciation and understanding of community prevention efforts to reduce child abuse. Child sexual abuse is among the most egregious events that can happen to a child, and the report released today by Illuminate Colorado provides new insights into what we all can do to help prevent such tragedies. The Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman is appreciative of the information gathered by Illuminate and supports their recommendation of investing in strategies that can build strong community awareness around this issue.

Stephanie Villafuerte

Child Protection Ombudsman of Colorado

Illuminating Child Care is Expanding to the San Luis Valley

Illuminating Child Care is Expanding to the San Luis Valley

Over the course of the next couple of months, the Early Childhood Council of the San Luis Valley is taking Acorn – Illuminate’s newest renovated RV providing on-site child care – on a tour of the San Luis Valley, stopping at locations that are helping to strengthen families–like recovery and treatment centers–to showcase this exciting new service that is by the people of the Valley, for the people of the Valley.

“The Early Childhood Council of the San Luis Valley envisions a community where all members prioritize and invest in our children to build a thriving society. This means supporting families and meeting them where they are. We strive to support parents’ health & wellbeing so they can in turn support optimal development of their children. What many of our families with high needs require is timely and coordinated services and this on-site child care classroom does just that! In partnership with Illuminate Colorado and our local service providers, we can make a difference in our community. We are excited to be able to pilot this greatly needed service in the San Luis Valley,” said Sherri Valdez, executive director of the Early Childhood Council San Luis Valley.

The early years of life – from belly to age eight – are very important for learning and development. That’s because during the first few years, children’s brains are developing fast. In fact, more than one million new brain connections form every second! Because of this, the experiences and relationships that young children have in the early years can impact them for life.

When families struggling to manage life’s challenges and the demands of raising children are also faced with the challenge of finding high quality child care, it can stand in the way of strengthening families. In fact, studies have shown difficulty finding child care is a stronger predictor of maternal neglect than almost any other factor, including mental health, severity of drug use, history of abuse as a child & use of public assistance.(1) This is why Illuminating Child Care is such an innovative and essential part of solving the child care crisis in Colorado.

Beginning with Honey last year servicing the Denver Metro area, Illuminate unveiled the first innovative on-site child care classroom.  “As a single mother, and as a single mother in recovery, the greatest barrier to me being able to complete those tasks that I need to complete and stay on track would be child care,” said Karie, one of several parents who depended on Illuminating Child Care when Honey first hit the road. “Honey is allowing me, as a mother, to stay on top of those other parts of my life so well.” A year later, we’re expanding to the San Luis Valley thanks in large part to the leadership of the Early Childhood Council of the San Luis Valley.

The cornerstone of Illuminating Child Care is its renovated RVs, which serve as on-site child care classrooms providing drop-in care for young children. Acorn was created with its fun-loving squirrels and custom features designed with healthy child development in mind.

Children learn through play, and creating a classroom that offers hands-on manipulation, role-play and practice, free choice, cooperation, and decision-making experiences serve just this purpose. Age and developmental appropriate items, such as climbing stairs, the book nook, and the toddler potty and sink, were designed around a young child’s unique needs.

Parents and caregivers will be able to drop off their young children at partner locations and feel confident that the teachers on Acorn will help their little ones learn and grow while they are getting the support they need to strengthen their families.

“We are so excited about this next phase of Illuminating Child Care and the partnership with the San Luis Valley. It takes all of us to create brighter childhoods for all children in Colorado and, together, we can take some of the weight off of our parents’ shoulders as they are working to tackle some really hard challenges,” said Patsy Bruce, child care manager at Illuminate Colorado.

Become an Illuminating Child Care Partner

Download the Illuminating Child Care San Luis Valley Informational Flyer.

 

Citations

1 Cash, S. J., & Wilke, D. J. (2003). An ecological model of maternal substance abuse and child neglect: Issues, analyses, and recommendations. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 73(4), 392-404; Yang, M. Y., & Maguire-Jack, K. (2016). Predictors of basic needs and supervisory neglect: Evidence from the Illinois Families Study. Children and Youth Services Review, 67, 20-26.

Circle of Parents Is Not Just for the Parents

Circle of Parents Is Not Just for the Parents

Finding community can sometimes be difficult, especially in a rural setting. From getting answers to all your parenting questions to something as simple as finding a babysitter, it’s helpful to have a group of people you can go to for support. For one mother in Conifer, Colorado, finding that community has come through Circle of Parents.

Photo by Amy Johnson Photography

Jen Wilson was ecstatic when she first heard about Circle of Parents starting up in Conifer. Her kids had already been involved in early-childhood programming through Mountain Resource Center (MRC), so when it was announced that MRC would be hosting a Circle of Parents group for the community, she jumped at the chance to get connected to other parents in the area.

Through Circle of Parents, Wilson said she was able to find a group of like-minded parents. She also quickly realized how beneficial this group could be for her kids. “It became really important to me immediately and I saw the social emotional component of Circle and the work that those kids do in just playing with each other and being engaged. My son is on the autism spectrum…and we were really hoping to develop some of those social emotional skills, and Circle was actually a better place to do that than the school. It was worthwhile and everyone saw the value.”

Soon after joining Circle of Parents, MRC asked Wilson to be a parent lead and, when in-person meetings weren’t an option due to COVID-19, she began co-facilitating a virtual group. “Being able to go virtual has been critical,” said Wilson. “It helped to keep everyone in touch. It’s kept us feeling supported during a really weird year.” Throughout the pandemic, Wilson’s group was able to continue meeting to support each other, help each other out when needs arose, and figure out things like how to keep their kids socialized. More recently, the group has adopted a hybrid model, balancing Zoom calls with in-person meetings at local parks.

The newest expansion of Circle of Parents in Colorado, Children’s Circle, is something Wilson is thrilled about. Children’s Circle is a curriculum-based children’s program that builds the social-emotional skills of the children of caregivers and parents attending Circles, and Wilson sees this added component as the piece that’s been missing this past year for their group. The opportunity for parents and kids to have separate activities is really needed, she said. Wilson is excited about the opportunity to reach out to even more parents now and hopes that Children’s Circle will be an added draw for people in her community.

“It is a really great match for our community. It’s worth anybody looking into. Especially if you are in any way looking to make connections with other families, it’s a great place to start.”

– Jen Wilson

With the expansion of Circle of Parents to include Children’s Circle, the opportunity for Circle to make a holistic impact is growing, continuing to benefit both parents and children. When asked what she would say to anyone thinking about attending a Circle of Parents group, Wilson shared, “It is a really great match for our community. It’s worth anybody looking into. Especially if you are in any way looking to make connections with other families, it’s a great place to start.”

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Pivoting During a Pandemic

Pivoting During a Pandemic

The year 2020 brought with it unprecedented challenges and opportunities to fulfill our mission to strengthen families, organizations and communities to prevent child maltreatment. Monitoring local and national health reports and directives regarding the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting school closures, reduced child care services and isolation placing children and families at greater risk of experiencing toxic stress and child maltreatment, and taking into consideration the often intense stress our employees and community partners were under at work and at home, Illuminate Colorado made many adjustments throughout the year in order to continue supporting the communities with which we partner. At the same time, we engaged in conversations on systemic racism, discrimination and inequities. We listened to and elevated families and communities with lived experiences.

2020 Annual Report

We learned, adapted and continue these tough conversations today because pervasive and systemic racism, both overt and passive, causes stress and trauma that can physically change a child’s brain and inhibit children from reaching their full potential. We know it is critical to address stress, trauma and the root causes of racism and white supremacy in order to create the conditions for children and families to thrive.

In the midst of it all, I am so proud of our staff and the support that we received from the community and the Paycheck Protection Program, which enabled us to avoid downsizing our staff or lessening our impact during the pandemic. As a small business employer, we’ve continued to find new ways to build our employees’ resilience and continue on a path toward a Colorado where all children and families thrive by:

  • launching a new innovative program, Illuminating Child Care, increasing access to child care for families addressing challenges;
  • bringing a new research-informed training to Colorado, Youth ThriveTM, focused on building protective and promotive factors with youth; and
  • facilitating a new collaborative space, the Colorado Partnership for Thriving Families, seeking to create the conditions for all children and families to thrive.

These are just some of the ways our organization was able to pivot during a global pandemic, highlighted in this annual report. Along the way, we learned from our experiences together, taking with us what works into the post-pandemic reality that awaits us all.

2020 Annual Report Timeline

Building a Fort on a Solid Foundation

Building a Fort on a Solid Foundation

Sometimes it is hard to quantify what it means to be a well-rounded parent, or in my case, father.  How many experiences should one provide their child?  How many activities should I be engaged in with her, personally?  How many lessons should she be signed up for?  I believe the answer is simple: as many as you both can handle.  That is just what we were doing until the pandemic hit and all our usual routines came to a screeching halt.  

We were unable to do the normal activities outside of the house and had to adapt very quickly to the new environment.  Except for the fact that I did not adapt as quickly as I should have, which was made more apparent to me by my daughter’s innocently brutal honesty when she shared her feelings about the situation and our household.

You see, her mother has the two story, 5-bedroom house, with the puppy dog and live-in boyfriend.  As for me, I’m offering a bunk bed slumber party with my daughter every night in our one bedroom, quite adorable, little “magic cottage”, as my landlord likes to call it.  Not that it’s a competition, (although it kind of most certainly is sometimes), but I am currently not in a place where I can compete. I was doing a good job of balancing it out pre-pandemic, trying to make up for what I couldn’t offer with fun, that is until the stay-at-home orders went into effect and all of the “fun” stopped. My then 4 year-old daughter made it very clear to me what side of the white-picket fence and rose garden I stood on.  It went something like this:

“I don’t like it here!  I want to go back home!  I want to go back to my family!  No, I don’t love you!  Mommy!  Mommy!  Mommy! . . .” After deliberating with this information for a long period of time, trying to reason with her, asking what we can do differently, encouraging her to think of some things to have more fun, she just kept repeating those incredibly hurtful comments and pulling my last thread of patience. 

So, I matched her intensity, and it went something like this: 

“I thought you liked this new place?!  We were in an unfinished basement before this for crying out loud!  You said you loved our new house!  Now you want to go back HOME with your FAMILY?!  How do you think that makes me feel?!  I AM your family too!  This IS also your home!  You can have a home and a family at mommy’s and a home and a family at daddy’s!  That hurts my feelings when you say that!  I’m trying over here!  What more do you want?!  I get it that your mom’s house is bigger, and you have more stuff to play with, but we do fun things too!  Have you forgotten about skiing, rock climbing, bike riding, hiking, camping, ice skating, roller skating, yoga, piano, and whatever else I can’t think of right now?!?!  We just can’t do a lot of them right now because everybody is sick!  You know, we have a big house in Texas with a huge a** backyard to run around in and a playscape to climb on!  You’ve been there!  I took you there when you were a year and a half, so I could fix it up to be a rental,  so we could move up here to Colorado, so your mom and I could both be close to you!  That’s where I could be right now, but I’m not!  I’m here, with you, because I choose to be!  Because I love you and I want to be with you!  There are a lot of other dads and moms that would not make this kind of sacrifice or would not have the means to do what I’m doing, so a little appreciation and gratitude would be nice!”

I calmly explained to her why I reacted the way that I did “because my feelings were hurt and sometimes even parents have ‘big feelings’ that are hard to manage, but it doesn’t mean that it is alright to yell and scream.”

Now before the “parenting police” come at me, quick to criticize others and shame parents for opening up about our struggles, I want to say that I am well aware that I did not handle that situation in the best fashion. I’m sharing this blog and my own experiences to help others and shine a light on parenting strategies that support physical, cognitive, language, social and emotional development, critical to helping our children reach their full potential. 

I know most of my response to her was my ego talking.  After yelling about the house for an extended period, cleaning things, throwing things away, and opening/closing doors aggressively, probably the only good thing I did was at the end of my rant, I told her that I am going to go to another room and take three deep breaths so I can calm down.  

Obviously, I missed the mark on that one earlier, but later is better than never, I suppose.  When I came back to her room, a little more clear headed, I found her scared, hiding from me at the top of her bunk bed. That sinking feeling of regret began to weigh heavy in my chest. I picked her up and brought her to the couch, holding her, rocking her and apologizing.  

I calmly explained to her why I reacted the way that I did “because my feelings were hurt and sometimes even parents have ‘big feelings’ that are hard to manage, but it doesn’t mean that it is alright to yell and scream.”  I reminded her that she is allowed to remind me to take my three deep breaths when she sees me getting upset or frustrated just like she reminds me to clean up my language when she hears me use a cuss word.  

This routine isn’t to impose her responsibility over my emotions, quite the contrary. It allows her the freedom to impose the same behavior corrections on me as I do for her.  This allows her to see that adults can also make mistakes and helps me model the proper way to accept constructive criticism while also reminding me to model good behavior for her.  The same kind of behavior I expect from her. But most importantly, it gives her skin in the game and a sense of ownership within our household and the household rules, which can be a very empowering and a confidence building experience.  It’s not whether the actions in this case were right or wrong, this is just what parenting looks like sometimes when we get overloaded by stress. A feeling we all became familiar with in the midst of stress induced by the pandemic which continues today.  

What is most important from this exchange is the lessons we both learned from the experience and how we recovered from it. I certainly learned about instilling more patience in my response times and that my daughter’s feelings on certain aspects that I may not necessarily agree with are legit and should be treated as such, even if what she has to say can feel hurtful to me/my ego.  

At the end of the day, I am the adult and I should be able to do better.  I believe what she learned from that experience is that words are powerful and they can really hurt people’s feelings and a bad reaction to her words, like mine, is a possibility. I also believe she learned that adults, too, are not perfect. We make mistakes just like she does, but when we do, we recognize the mistake, apologize and try to move forward.  

I think a potentially negative outcome from that experience may now be that she is a little more hesitant, not feeling safe to speak, believing that I may become angry in the fashion I did again.  Like, I may have broken the trust with her for open and honest communication due to my reaction.  That being said, it is not always a bad thing to take a pause before one decides to speak and maybe also decide not to speak at all after calculating the unproductive outcome that may transpire.  

 

It was the beginning of setting the groundwork for a good foundation based on trust, love, open communication and teamwork.  We both went to work thinking of different indoor activities and ideas that we could do together and things she could look forward to doing with me when it was time to come back after her week with her mother.

The other side of that coin is a willingness to then lie about the truth of what we are feeling to avoid potential consequences or a conflict; which is exactly what I noticed manifesting months after I “lost it during the pandemic” and something we are both happily working on together to solve.

It was the beginning of setting the groundwork for a good foundation based on trust, love, open communication and teamwork.  We both went to work thinking of different indoor activities and ideas that we could do together and things she could look forward to doing with me when it was time to come back after her week with her mother.  Since we had a collection of Amazon and Costco boxes, the first task was to build a fort!  We both helped build it and paint it and continuously add her artwork to it that she brought home from school.  It was basically two stories and took up most of the living room, but was well worth the tight squeeze with all of the memories we created with it.  The fort led to other fun things for us to do together, like our activities board filled with things like yoga, hiking, piano practice, letter sounds, bike riding, roller-skating and Spanish practice.  

For each activity on our board she would get a sticker to put on a sticky note pad next to the activity.  When she got three stickers on an activity, she would transfer the stick note pad to another board where she could earn 5 minutes of screen time with Kahn Academy Kids/ABC Mouse, OR she could add up more sticky note pads to bake cookies with Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa over zoom! This then lead to me purchasing my first board game for her, (Candy Land), and gracefully teaching her the art of losing with good sportsmanship.  😊  

The final addition to our pandemic forced shift of “fun” came in the form of card games (I hate card games, by the way).  But, this one actually turned out to be a great learning experience for me as well, considering I did not think that a four and a half year old could grasp the idea of some of these card games, like memory, Slap Jack, and Goldfish, and I did not think I would have so much fun watching her learn the games?!  Nevermind the fact that I had to reread the directions on how to play most of these games.  Ha!  The time together turned out to be some of the best bonding we have ever done, partially because of the adversities we had to overcome and the determination to push through it as a team.  

It all started with that breakdown in communication, where we hurt each other’s feelings, had to set new expectations in our relationship and rebuild the trust on a solid foundation. . . . A foundation perfect for a fort that would take up my whole living room for almost a year until we were finally ready to take it down so we could put up our Christmas Tree.  That fort became the quintessential metaphor for what we were going through as a family and possibly what our society was going through as a whole.  The building of that fort is something I will never take for granted and never ever forget in reflecting on the true purpose that it actually served.

About the Author

About the Author

Adam N. S. Combs is a blog contributor helping to illuminate the protective factors in his family’s life by sharing his experiences as a father, military veteran and Circle of Parents facilitator through storytelling.

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