Her own daycare dilemma leads to new nonprofit By Merry Mayer • photos by Frank PincRhonda Present, founder of ParentsWork, and her daughter, Jorie, 6.
Rhonda Present faced a real dilemma when her babysitter quit the day before a crucial meeting at work. Should she jeopardize her job to stay at home until she could find another quality caretaker for her daughter? Or find a last minute sitter she didn't know that well?
It's the same thing all parents grapple with: your job vs. your child, the tug and pull of two very compelling needs. Present thinks it could be easier.
So two years ago Present founded ParentsWork, an organization she hopes will grow one day into a institution that gives parents the lobbying strength of the American Association of Retired Persons, AARP.
The organization's mission is to push for family-friendly public policies and workplace practices. ParentsWork would alert members to upcoming bills that affect parents and give them letters to sign and send off to their legislators.
But all that is in the future. Right now, Present is laying the groundwork and putting together a database of interested parents.
"At every corner you turn, parents are being undermined in their efforts to care well for their kids and to meet their family's economic needs at the same time. And nobody should be forced to have to make that trade-off," Present says.
But most parents do. Present says stay-at-home parents face the same issues. Many parents quit the workforce because they cannot get the time off they need to care for a newborn, she says. Present sees the choices parents make even in the smaller, but still heartbreaking things.
"We just got a notice this week at my daughter's elementary school. I think I got it on Tuesday and it said, ‘Come one, come all, to celebrate the giving of the crowns and lunch at 11:30 on Friday.' " The crowns, she says, were given out for good behavior and were supposed to be very special.
"Well, I can pop over for the little picnic at 11:30, but the majority of parents can't. The school says `Oh, it's OK,' if we can't make it, but what does that say to the kids?"
It bugs Present. "It's a 1950s model," she says. "Preschools, elementary schools, all pre-suppose that there is a full-time caregiver available at all times."
And the work world isn't any better. "You have to still lie when you take a sick day for your kids because it's not considered acceptable in many companies to take it to care for someone else."
Again, she uses an example from her own life. "Most people get 10 sick days a year. But my daughter just had a fever for three days in a row and I couldn't send her to school."
What can be done?
So what could be done to make things easier for parents?
Present thinks paid family leave would be a good start. Right now she is dealing with the process, not specific issues. Her goal: To get the needs of parents on the agenda.
"We need to change the discussion and create a dialogue about how we go about reframing our community institutions, our workplaces and our public policies so that they support the work of parents. They do not, they absolutely do not right now," she says.
The job of starting a grassroots organization isn't easy, but Present has the credentials for the job. She holds a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago and spent 17 years as an advocate for low-income families.
But after her daughter Jorie was born six years ago, Present started talking to mostly middle and upper class parents. She realized they had many of the same concerns as poor families. If they worked, they worried about finding and keeping daycare, paying for daycare and somehow balancing work and family time. If one parent stayed home, they struggled to afford health insurance and get by on less money.
Thus was born ParentsWork. At first, Present just talked about it with a colleague where she worked.
"She started dreaming up ParentsWork before she left [the Jobs Council] and she would run ideas past me because I was the only person here that had a child," says Evelyn Diaz, currently director of operations at the Jobs Council and an adviser for ParentsWork. When Present researched the idea, she found that others had tried, and failed, before her. But all those started nationally, and "I believe you have to start locally-begin at the ground and grow," she says. So ParentsWork is focused on Illinois.
"If we can build a successful statewide membership organization in Illinois, then it can happen in other places too. Not that we would be the ones making it happen, but we can be a resource to those that might want to make it happen. It would become a movement and elevate to a national issue," she says.
A full-time commitment
But to make it work means putting in lots of hours. Present couldn't do that if she stayed at the Jobs Council, where she had been working part-time from home since Jorie's birth.
"There was no way I was going to work 20 hours a week for the Jobs Council, care full time for a preschooler and start a grassroots organization. I would never be sleeping," she says.
Still, it was a tough decision financially for the family. Present and her husband decided she would quit her paying job for work that wouldn't pay and would actually cost her money. Everything from office supplies to telephone bills to meeting expenses are paid out of their family budget.
"It does impact us financially," says Larry Minsky, Present's husband. But, "the importance of the mission, I think, speaks for itself. Someone has to do it."
Into the mix had been all the ups and downs of finding childcare with an erratic work schedule. At first, the family got lucky with a wonderful woman their daughter connected with. But once she left, it was difficult finding someone who wanted a job only two days a week.
"I think sometimes there is a misnomer that you can work out of your house and not have childcare. Like you can do it while the baby's napping. But that is not real," she says.
Present is hoping to host a fundraiser this spring to begin funding the organization.
"This is my life's mission. I think it's important work. Larry believed it was important work," she says.
One of her first steps was to bring in an advisory committee of 12 parent volunteers. Important to Present was that the committee include fathers. "She didn't want it to be viewed as a mothers group," says Daniel O. Ash, one of four fathers who sit on the committee.
Making it easy for parents
Present also didn't want to make more work for parents. "How do you create ParentsWork in such a way that it doesn't require parents to go to one more meeting, when they have PTA, soccer, and everything else?" she says.
So the organization hopes to alert members to bills that affect parents and give them letters that they only need sign and send off to their legislators.
In keeping with the AARP model, Present is also looking at using partnership marketing. ParentsWork would join up with a retailer such as Toys ‘R' Us or Target. Parents who become members would receive a coupon from the retailer.
"It will help us reach a broad section of parents," she says. Reaching beyond just middle class moms and dads is important to Present, and not just because she was an advocate for the poor.
It has to do with Present's own childhood. Her mother felt forced to give her up for adoption when Present was just 1. Ten years ago, Present tracked down her biological mother and met her two half sisters. She learned that her father had died, and her mother found it hard to cope as a single parent. "If she had been supported, she wouldn't have given me up," Present says.
But can ParentsWork succeed? Is the time right for a parent-focused lobbying organization? She has been meeting with foundations and seeking individual donations for ParentsWork. The advisory committee determined that the organization needs $150,000 to build a Web site, create a listserv and market the organization over the next two years.
"I wouldn't be as excited about the idea if it wasn't for the person behind it," says Diaz.
"Chances of success are greater because Rhonda really has a good idea what she wants to do," says Ash.
Helping parents isn't just good for them, but for kids as well. It may even be a matter of life or death, she says. In New York recently, a single mother working as an assistant manager at McDonald's left her two children, ages 1 and 9, alone to go to work after her babysitter failed to show. The apartment caught fire and the two children died. The mother had been afraid she would lose her job.
"It boils down to kids," adds Diaz.
"I shudder to think of the impact on children."
ParentsWork's first fundraiser is set for 3 p.m. April 25 at the Duncan YMCA, 1001 Roosevelt Rd., Chicago. Limited seating is available and advanced tickets are required for the benefit performance, silent auction and children's activities. For more information, or to join the ParentsWork mailing list, contact ParentsWork by phone at (847) 864-4838, by mail at P.O. Box 6335, Evanston, IL, 60202, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Merry Mayer is a Chicago-based writer. She has two children.