The high quality of life apparent in Vermont’s thriving ski towns and college hubs can sometimes mask problems that exist in other parts of the state. Springfield, a community of 9,000, is currently coping with the decline of manufacturing jobs. The Springfield Area Parent Child Center provides local residents with everything from child care and playgroups to free evening parenting classes and professional help with learning delays and behavior problems. Administrative manager Jan Zona talks about the center’s efforts to provide real-world solutions for struggling Vermonters.
VL: What first brought you to Vermont?
JZ: I moved to Springfield from Fairfield County, Connecticut, 13 years ago with my husband, Gary. We were looking to live and work in a less congested area and enjoy life in a more rural setting. When I was a child, my dad helped build a camp for a friend in East Wallingford, and we spent many weekends there. The first time I ever skied was at Okemo Mountain. Little did I know that years later I would work there!
VL: You were guest services manager there for 10 years before joining the Parent Child Center. That’s an unusual transition.
JZ: It might seem like a leap to go from a resort to a nonprofit, but in reality, I have just moved from one service industry to another. Now, rather than help visitors enjoy their time here, I can help the youngest citizens in our community and their families.
VL: What has been the biggest change at the center since it began?
JZ: Our growth. We started in a small house on Myrtle Street in 1992 with a core group of six to eight employees. Now we have a staff of 35 who offer a much wider variety of services to the community.
VL: Your “Learning Together” program offers education, job training and parenting skills. Who are the typical participants?
JZ: Mostly we deal with single mothers who became pregnant as teenagers and did not finish high school. For young women in those circumstances, it is difficult to return to a high school environment. They think that their lives are basically over when that happens, but we provide a path to help them earn their high school degree as well as teach them skills in parenting, interpersonal skills, job readiness and on-the-job experience. Here, we’re not making judgments.
VL: Where do they gain job experience?
JZ: Here at the center. They receive clerical training in our reception area, food preparation in the kitchen, child care and retail experience in our day care and thrift store. They rotate jobs to acquire skills. It’s amazing when the young women think they’re not going to like something — like answering the phone in the reception area — and then they gain confidence. I see young women just blossom.
VL: How does the thrift store work?
JZ: We take donations of gently used quality clothing and sell it at a very reasonable price. It’s a way for us to provide retail and customer service experience for our students, as well as generate a small income for the center. Our participants earn credits they can use for children’s clothing, which is a big help, as kids outgrow things so quickly.
VL: How did you develop your educational approach? It’s certainly nontraditional.
JZ: We tried lectures and oral and written reports and homework, but we weren’t able to keep our students focused and involved. A hands-on approach is most successful. For example, we can weave elements of everyday math, nutrition, and science into a cooking and gardening class.
We live in Vermont, an agricultural state, and you’d think that everyone would know about how to grow vegetables and farm, but that’s not the case. So many moms and kids live in apartments, and they don’t have room or the means to grow a garden. This program gives them exposure to gardens, and they learn about agriculture, which is so important to our state.
VL: Do the kids in the day care take part?
JZ: Oh yes, they love it! They get their little rakes and come out with us. They’re so interested, it’s infectious. Sometimes if a mom didn’t get enough sleep or it’s hot outside, she might not feel like gardening. But the kids are really into it, so the moms will say OK …
VL: What happens to the food?
JZ: We cook it. Depending on what we are harvesting, the food will go to the kitchen for the next day’s lunch, or perhaps we might be doing, say, a special zucchini recipe in class, and we’d send our participants home with the produce to make it for their families.
VL: What do the children learn in the garden?
JZ: Taking care of plants teaches responsibility early on, and that is the key to everything. Children are curious and natural learners. By introducing them to gardening, it brings them outdoors in a natural environment with an opportunity for some physical exercise. It can also provide its own reward for a job well done when you can pick the fruits of your labor. The simple science of a seed placed in the rich soil and nurtured with the right amount of care is a wonderful way to teach a life lesson as well.
VL: What is one of your most memorable moments at the center?
JZ: Former Governor Madeleine Kunin was on her way to a speaking engagement last fall and stopped in. While touring the center, she spent some time in our Learning Together classroom talking to the students about her journey to become the first female governor in Vermont. Her words were inspiring to the young women: to always have hope and that education is the key to success.