Center gives parents, young kids a place to drop in

Recognizing the need for a parent-child drop-in center as well as support and counseling, the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center and Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay have combined forces.

The Parenting Center, which opened in February at the BRJCC in Berkeley, offers workshops, support groups, play groups, a toy and book lending library and Time In, twice weekly free drop-in sessions supervised by a child-care professional.

"There are other opportunities in the community for parents to get support, but there aren't enough," said Rachel Biale, JFCS director of parenting and youth services. "Parents I talk to are hungry for a comfortable place to go to just hang out with other parents and their children."

Biale, a licensed clinical social worker who proposed the program two years ago to the BRJCC, said that while both agencies have provided parenting support services and workshops separately in the past, merging into one program will further benefit the community.

Time In, which is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., may be the most useful service provided, she said. "Being able to drop in without an appointment is important for the parent who gets up on the wrong side of the bed or when the parent has been inside the house for three weeks with their child because it keeps raining and the walls are starting to close in."

Time In is designed for parents or primary caregivers to stop by with young children to socialize with other families under the supervision of a child-care professional.

"Parents need three things," said Biale, who will be one of JFCS' Time In counselors. "To get out of the isolation of being a parent, to have the opportunity to see other parents interacting with their children who happen to be dealing with the same thing, and to turn to a professional for guidance."

Numerous topics arise during the drop-in visits such as, "What do I do when my easygoing kid suddenly throws a tantrum in the middle of Safeway?"

"Some parents might try to bribe the child with candy, which works at the moment, but will backfire in the long run," said Biale, who instead would advise the parent to leave the store, even if the shopping doesn't get done. "Teaching a child to work through their anger is more important than a cart full of groceries."

While planning The Parenting Center, Biale and Judy Wolff-Bolton, BRJCC's executive director, looked at the S.F.-based JFCS' Parents Place as a model. "Ours is a modest version," Biale said.

While Parents Place is fully funded through grants, donations and fees, The Parenting Center has a start-up budget of $1,000 for the first six months of operation. Although there were private donations of toys and books, the coordinators have not been able to land any grant money so far. "We're at a very beginning stage," Wolff-Bolton said.

Some of the workshops and support groups were previously given by the two agencies, while others were developed or redesigned for the center. Among the new programs is one addressing the issues of adolescence: "Parenting the Pierced: An Interactive Workshop for Parents and Teens," led by JFCS' staffer Rebecca Weiner.

Weekly six-to-eight-week support groups include "Parenting in Interfaith Families," led by Biale and "From Davening to Diapers: Parenting as a Spiritual Practice" led by Cindy Leavitt, also of JFCS.

Biale's long-term vision is to open Time In 24 hours a day. "That would be utopia," she said.

But even well-established Parents Place limits its drop-in hours to Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.

"I'm not aware of too many drop-in programs like ours," said Robert Scott, assistant director at Parents Place. "Parents and nannies would use it every day if it was available."

Wolff-Bolton has already taken advantage of Time In, bringing her 2-1/2-year-old son, Ari, with her on opening day. "As a parent, it's a valuable, convenient service," she said. "It fits into the hectic world of today. To be able to talk to a trained counselor just as things come up is a great way to get help."

Wolff-Bolton did ask a Time In counselor about something she and her husband have been dealing with. Her son was reluctant to share his toys with his 16-month-old sister, Dalia.

"I wanted to get some new ideas, as well as verify what we were doing was on the right track, which is to honor his space and his toys and give him a sense of ownership, but then teach him to share some with Dalia," she said. "It was very validating to ask an expert. I had my son with me and the counselor was able to see the interaction between Ari and me."

Biale said she has been eager to see a program like The Parenting Center come to life since she started working for JFCS five years ago. "I'm excited about all of it. The collaboration feels like we're both putting ourselves out there to serve the community."