W here can a homeless teenage mother turn when she's trying to care for two children? Tina (not her real name) had been sleeping on the street with her two children (one 19 months old, the other only four months) after escaping from a violent boyfriend. Though not a case of deliberate neglect, every ounce of Tina's energy was being used to feed and find shelter for her children; therefore, it's of little surprise that both kids were developmentally behind, and had never seen a doctor. When she showed up at Portland Relief Nursery, she didn't even have a stroller for the kids. She was exhausted and literally at the end of her rope.
In this day of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" conservatism, there are precious few resources available for underemployed parents who are trying to care for their children. Happily, there's the Portland Relief Nursery (PRN); a nonprofit designed to aid children (three years old and under) who have been abused or neglected, as well as serving parents who need a helping hand.
In North Portland alone, where the PRN makes its home, about one in ten (or roughly 500) children are confirmed victims of abuse or neglect. It's also a sad but true fact that prisons are filled with violent offenders who were abused as children. The idea behind the PRN is simple; if violent and neglectful situations are caught early enough (many studies show that much of the brain's critical development is hard-wired by 33 months), recurrent child abuse can be lowered by up to 80 percent.
Though only two years old, the Portland Relief Nursery is already in the business of making miracles. Their services include therapeutic classrooms, hot meals, new clothes, rides to and from the center, and parental education and support groups--all free of charge to their clients. And perhaps most importantly, the children and parents are taught an incredibly valuable lesson: how to play.
"Many parents assume all children already know how to play," says Sheila Hale, the executive director of PRN. "But sometimes the children and the parents need to be taught. And it's with playtime we can teach the parent about appropriate behavior while affecting positive change for the children."
While parents are learning through playtime, they are also given advice, and taught parenting skills and self-sufficiency. Teenage mothers and other underemployed parents are also offered free computer training classes to give them a jumpstart into the workforce, or help in obtaining a GED.
The Portland Relief Nursery is also available in times of family crisis, providing mental health counseling, as well as respite care--wherein the child will be taken in by qualified staff members until the crisis is managed. But not all of PRN's work is done on site; through a program called "Home Base," staff members actually go to the family's home to offer help to parents who are in desperate need of guidance and support. And it's all designed to head abuse off at the pass, and stop the cycle of violence that will eventually come back to haunt us all.
Even the fiscally conservative "bootstrap- pullers" can agree that this early prevention saves the state money. Juvenile detention costs up to $47,000 per year, per child, and it takes over $17,000 to place a troubled teen in foster care. Meanwhile the PRN can service and help create a new beginning for an entire family for only $6,700 a year.
The Mercury is happily donating all the proceeds of our Online Gift Auction to the Portland Relief Nursery, who can continue to use your help throughout the year. Besides monetary donations which buy diapers, baby formula, books, toys, car seats, cribs, and strollers, the PRN is always looking for volunteers to assist in the classroom, help prepare meals, do administrative work, and play with the children while staff members meet with parents. Call Judy Boyer at 283-4776, ext. 136, for more details.
As for Tina, the homeless teenage mom who was on her last legs when she brought her two children to PRN--she came to the right place. Her children were immediately set up in respite care, and given doctor appointments, followed by therapeutic classes. Tina was provided with domestic abuse counseling, enrolled in a GED program, and assisted in finding permanent housing for her family.
For Tina, and the rest of the community, the Portland Relief Nursery is a safe place for children and their parents looking for a second chance--and a solution that works.