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Raucous cheers, hearty applause and joyful tears greeted the first graduating Padres Unidos class as they marched into St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, San Juan Capistrano, to receive well-deserved diplomas.

The graduates — preschoolers and parents alike — had completed school readiness programs and parenting skills classes, respectively, and the moment’s significance was palpable.

Rosario Galeana translated the sight of preschoolers in black caps and red gowns into a charge to proud parents to “match” the present image with that of an eventual university graduation. “This is only the beginning of a long distance for your kids and you,” she told them at the late May graduation ceremony.

A parent graduate agreed, offering up spontaneous gratitude while receiving her certificate: “Thank you for helping our children in all areas of their lives. This planet, this world, needs better parents; we are making better children and a better world.”

A nonprofit agency, Padres Unidos aids low-income Spanish-speaking families in Orange County with a variety of services, according to Martha Patarroyo, agency supervisor at the San Juan Capistrano church’s site.

“We do outreach in the community, we go house- by-house and invite parents to come to this program, where children can learn and be at the same level, sometimes a little higher, than kids going five days a week to school,” she said. “We empower families to embrace their kids.”

The program, begun in 1999, works with community partners. St. Margaret’s had helped to sponsor it at another location for two years but this year provided space, hosting the church’s first graduating class, according to the Rev. Canon Robert Edwards, rector.
Padres Unidos teachers and volunteers bring all the materials and supplies with them for the once-weekly classes. They set up and, at the end of the day, take everything with them.

“This is an amazing program, I could see this being done at churches all over the diocese,” Edwards said.

The program was so popular it doubled in size, from 30 to 60 students during the school year and in the next session, will expand from one to two days weekly, he said.

‘Successful families, successful communities’

Padres Unidos board chair Sam Corliss, a St. Margaret’s parishioner, said the program works to build communities by involving parents in their children’s education, “recognizing they are the child’s first teacher.”

Patarroyo agreed. “We really work with families to learn the importance of education, and being involved with their kids and to make rules and consequences according to the family’s values and needs,” she said.

“For example, we teach them that the most important treasure is the way they distribute their day and how to take time with family, that what is really important is time with family and kids.”

Padres Unidos offers a program for mothers and young children ages 2 to 3-1/2 where, through play and other activities, the moms “help the children develop socially.” Another component is the school readiness program, for children 3-1/2 to 5 years old.

Approximately 60 percent of children in Santa Ana have no early education experience at all, entering kindergarten unprepared and already academically behind, according to the agency’s website. While Padres Unidos serves approximately 3,000 youth and families each year, they have seen “a huge increase in the need for services to support early education and school readiness for underserved children and families throughout Orange County.

“There are still thousands more youth who need a structured introduction to socio-emotional and academic learning as well as parents who need to be equipped with the tools to become engaged in their child’s early education,” according to the website.

The program began with a $150,000 budget; this year it topped $1.3 million, according to Corliss. He said the parents typically volunteer for Padres Unidos and some go on to become facilitators through a two-year Chapman University program that trains community workers. “It has a very hands on approach,” including offering case management and counseling services to aid parent’s challenges.

“We really work with families and do assessments for them and help empower them to use the resources in their community and to be more independent,” Patarroyo told the Episcopal News. Time management, setting healthy boundaries, and communicating values and mentoring are some of the skills parents are taught, she said.

All of which strengthens parents and the community, according to Robin Fraser, senior clinical director for Padres Unidos.

“At St. Margaret’s we’ve been talking about ways to help the children as much as we could. The earlier we can begin with the kids, the earlier they can connect with nurturing adults, they are less likely to get into unhealthy or destructive behaviors,” he said.
In addition to teaching parenting skills, he also facilitates the involvement of social work student interns from a variety of local universities and colleges, he said.

“We had interns working on their social work degrees providing counseling for parents and other family members, who are involved in receiving services from Padres Unidos,” Fraser said.

Families and communities are strengthened through the weekly three-hour classes, and Padres Unidos delivers a huge service to San Juan Capistrano’s Spanish-speaking families, many of whom are newly arrived and need extra support, Corliss said. “Before this, there was really not much in San Juan Capistrano to respond to the Spanish-speaking community.”

So much so that, as they received their certificates, several parents felt moved to respond, through interpreter Rosario Galeana:

“A thousand thanks. Thanks for the love and the knowledge. Thank you for sharing all of that with us the parents.

“So many things are being imparted to help us raise our kids. Thank you for your patience. Looking at them right now we can truly appreciate and see what it is we have taken from this program.”