It is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at 6 p.m. The aroma of fresh cookies, ham, turkey, and greens fills the large multi-purpose room in the Sunshine building. Parents stream in to meet their children as the after-school program draws to a close. Each is carrying a dish to share, a way to come together as a community family to celebrate the holiday. Every month, Sunshine’s BRING (Building Resilience in the Next Generation) elementary program hosts a family dinner for parents to join their children and develop deeper relationships with the Sunshine staff. This year parent participation is higher than ever. “Our first group dinner we counted more than 120 people in the room,” shares Managing Director of Operations Andy Combs.
When BRING Program Coordinator Chuck Harris came on staff in 2015, he had a vision to grow the program beyond the scope of just Woodlawn students. He knew the key to this would be gaining the trust and participation of parents. The youth staff all began more intentionally reaching out to parents to affirm their children and the qualities they see in each child, the growth they see happening, and the ways parents can be more involved. Soon, word began to spread across the community and Sunshine’s youth programs were sought after. One of the parents that is present often is Kimetha Davis. She became involved this past summer when she was discussing the program with a neighbor who had her children in Sunshine’s youth programs. Kimetha soon joined and became excited about all Sunshine was doing. She brought her two daughters and recruited her relatives as well. “I love how they focus on character building as well as academic help. Sunshine is gaining a really good reputation in the community and people want their kids to be here.”
The youth programs now serve children from the surrounding Washington Park neighborhood as well as the Woodlawn neighborhood. 13 different schools are now represented. A key to continued growth has been the implementation and coordination with Sunshine’s Familyhood program which reaches parents within the school context. Parent-led classes teach the 40 Developmental Assets using the Raising Highly Capable Kids curriculum. These assets are also reinforced in the curriculum used by the youth staff.
Along with monthly dinners, the staff have also implemented special nights such as HalloWoodlawn where kids dressed in costumes for a fashion show, Sunshine’s Open House event, and the annual Christmas store. This year, an average of 25 caregivers are participating in monthly dinners or events and the number continues to grow. Harris shares, “In the last few years I see Sunshine reaching the parents/caregivers in new ways. They are opening up and investing in all our programs more than ever. We (the Youth Outreach staff) have been very conscious in reaching out and trying to be more involved with our kids and parents outside of structured program time. We value their opinions and feedback and work to build a trust line between us. They are the most important influence in their kids’ lives and we can’t do anything without their commitment to us and belief in each other.”