As Parent University grows and matures, it stays focused on core mission
Local program in Georgia listens and responds to participants as it offers tools for family success
When Michael O’Neal reflects on Parent University’s 19-year journey of giving Savannah, Georgia, parents the tools to create a path of success for their children, he recognizes two keys to its success: listening and responding.
“Active listening is fine,” says the program’s founder, a Baha’i in Savannah. “But if people trust you enough to share their heart with you and then you don’t respond, you might actually have insulated them from sharing with you again.”
These are people, says O’Neal, who turn at a time of great need to the self-improvement courses Parent University provides to the community. “To be frank, most people don’t come because they’re feeling on top of the world.”
Fortunately, the program has many partners in offering that assistance: Savannah’s city government, school system, universities, public library, civic organizations — not to mention fellow parents.
“Many people characterize us as the Parent University community,” says O’Neal. “No one is looked down on because they don’t know something. It’s actually celebrated that you are pursuing knowledge.”
So it’s natural that many of the thousands who have participated over the years continue to serve the program in some capacity.
“We have parents who have grown up in Parent University and now do everything from teaching to childcare because it’s their culture to participate in this,” says O’Neal.
“These are individuals who have become so enamored with what we are doing that they have formed leadership groups to take care of things like transportation, like food, things of that nature,” he relates.
A program that O’Neal says “pretty much started with the money we had in our pockets” is now “an entity that is very much aware of itself and does the things necessary to sustain itself.”
But Parent University remains close to its core mission of being “of service to our participants,” he says. “Our focus has never left the parents.”
Reflection is an essential reason, says O’Neal. “It’s not a ‘one-time ask the parents how it’s going.’ It’s constant review and reflection how we are and how we’re feeling. And the parents drive that.”
For instance, when participants recently got together to reflect on progress, he says, they “began to articulate what service projects Parent University needs to become known for. They’ve come to realize that the best way to make ourselves better is to serve others.”
Look at it this way, O’Neal suggests. “Suppose we are able to give our kids a little bit of a head start. They still have to live in the community. So it’s logical that we need to create a community that our kids can thrive in. We’re not in a vacuum.”
O’Neal says guidance of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith, on grassroots social action has been invaluable in helping Parent University help its participants.
“You figure out the language necessary,” he notes. “And you figure out the value of relationships, and of the importance of the depth of our relationships with people.”
The trust established in these relationships has been a big factor in warding off divisive political discussions, says O’Neal. When parents “become inflamed” by issues, “we have been able to point back and say our mission is to build capacity in the community. What you do with that capacity is what you need to do.”
That actually sums up Parent University itself pretty well: People helping people help themselves and their community.
“It’s like you see a sapling growing up,” says O’Neal. “At some point you look at the sapling and you realize, wow, that thing’s probably going to live. It starts to demonstrate different characteristics of a mature tree.
“It’s just been a real pleasure to watch.”