Thanks to Marti Maguire, correspondent to The News & Observer, for an inspiring and informative story about Marjorie Menestres, Tar Heel of the Week (April 7, 2013). Marjorie was hired as SAFEchild’s first executive director 20 years ago this week.
By Marti Maguire — Correspondent
When she had her first child, Marjorie Menestres was thousands of miles away from her closest relative in a country where she barely spoke the language.
It was a challenging time, and one that sparked in her a passion for helping parents that has driven her work as the founding director of SAFEchild, Wake County’s only child abuse prevention program.
Menestres, 61, started SAFEchild 20 years ago as its sole employee with a budget of $75,000 provided by the Junior League of Raleigh. She now oversees 16 employees and up to 300 volunteers at a self-sustaining organization with a $1.3 million budget that serves 900 families a year.
April is national Child Abuse Prevention Month, and SAFEchild will be conducting several events and fundraisers, including the Walk to Prevent Child Abuse 5K Walk on April 20.
More than 130,000 children were reported as abused or neglected in North Carolina each of the past two years, according to state statistics compiled from local social service departments. In Wake County, more than 2,000 such cases were confirmed in the fiscal year ending in July 2011, including two deaths.
Many more instances of abuse go unreported. The problem spans all social groups but is more likely to occur in families where other risk factors exist, such as a history of abuse of a parent, social isolation, or financial worries.
SAFEchild’s central focus is to prevent abuse by helping parents successfully navigate all of the pressures of child-rearing. SAFEchild offers classes and mentoring for parents and children at its offices, at schools and in homes – providing the kind of support Menestres learned firsthand is so important.
“Parenting is the most important job that we have for which we are the least prepared,” she says. “At the time we started, a parent had to hurt their child before they could get any help.”
SAFEchild’s programming has expanded steadily as Menestres and her staff seek new ways to help children.
“Marjorie has had a positive impact on the lives of countless children and families,” says former SAFEchild board chair Henry Campen, a lawyer with Parker Poe. “She has a unique gift for leadership, which she has employed to inspire and mobilize literally hundreds of volunteers and donors over the years to nurture and protect the children of Raleigh and Wake County.”
Menestres was born in Brooklyn, and raised on Long Island, where her family moved into a post-World War II suburb that had been built among former potato fields. Her father ran a successful printing business that he eventually moved to the Triangle.
In college, Menestres chose to study special education because she had done volunteer work with children who had special needs while she was in high school, following in the footsteps of her mother, who was an avid volunteer for various causes.
She went first to a small New England school, Lesley College, but she ended up transferring to the University of Florida, where she earned a degree in education and social science that would have qualified her to teach social studies.
She decided to go to Israel after graduation instead, both for adventure and to explore her Jewish heritage. She stayed a year and a half, and met the man who would become her husband.
Upon returning to the U.S., she earned her master’s degree in counseling at the University of Florida. She married soon after, and moved to Belgium, her new husband’s home country.
She had her first child while she was there, and was stung by the isolation of caring for a newborn without the help of family or friends. She resolved to help other mothers when she got the chance.
“I was really socially isolated,” she says. “I had a real need for support, and I knew that not only did I not want to feel isolated, but I didn’t want other mothers to feel that way.”
She was also impressed with the country’s health care services, which included home visits to new mothers – an approach mirrored in SAFEchild’s “Welcome Baby” program.
Menestres soon moved back to Raleigh, where she volunteered with a parent-child support group through the Women’s Center of Wake County. She also earned a second master’s degree, this time in education from N.C. State University.
As her two sons grew older, she started looking for jobs that would mesh with her desire to help parents. Her first job was at WakeMed’s MELD program, which teaches parenting skills to first-time parents and teenage mothers.
In her nine years there, Menestres says she learned a lot about program development, volunteer management and other aspects of nonprofit work. She also earned a nonprofit management certificate from Duke University during that time.
So when she saw an opening for the director of an organization aimed at preventing child abuse, Menestres was a good fit for the job.
“I hit the jackpot with this job in being able to meld my personal values into my professional life,” she says.
Classes for parents
The Junior League had done extensive research to figure out what kind of services were lacking in Wake County. Child abuse prevention rose to the top of that list.
The league provided seed money for the organization, but it was up to Menestres to prove its relevance and find other funding sources.
After three years, SAFEchild was running independently of the league. It has since moved into its own office, in a historic home on Morgan Street near Hillsborough Street. In 2011, it opened a child advocacy center where sexually abused children can receive all the services they need under one roof.
Typically, SAFEchild brings established programs to local families, such as its parenting classes, which last from 11 to 15 weeks and include information on discipline, child development, anger management and other topics. Transportation, daycare, and dinner are provided to all participants.
Its “Welcome Baby” initiative pairs new moms with mentors who come to their homes. Another program in place at 50 schools throughout the county teaches students to recognize and report abuse.
The group created its own program for court-referred abusers, because no such program existed.
Some of the parenting classes are geared for specific groups, such as teenage mothers and victims of domestic violence. But others are intended to help anyone be a better parent – the preventative approach that Menestres has long embraced.
“There’s a lot of stigma about reaching out for help, and my goal is to make reaching out for help a sign of strength,” she says.
The SAFEchild Advocacy Center Medical Team was among the health care leaders honored at the 2013 Triangle Business Journal Health Care Heroes Awards dinner March 21 at the Renaissance Hotel in North Hills.
Led by Betty Witman, MD, Medical Director, the team includes Holly Warner, FNP, David Adams, MD, and Dr. Ben Alexander, MD. Each member is affiliated with WakeMed. All are rostered North Carolina Child Abuse Medical Evaluators and provide medical examinations for children served at the SAFEchild Advocacy Center.
“NO matter how much a child has been physically harmed, or their emotional spirit broken, our Medical Team can re-direct a child’s path,” said Cristin DeRonja, SAFEchild Advocacy Center Director, who nominated the team. “It is impossible to avoid being motivated, energized, and mobilized to make a positive difference for the children who need our protection when you look at permanent scars from wounds intentionally inflicted by a caregiver or when you witness a child shiver in response to a caring human’s healing touch. It is a humbling and awe-inspiring experience to provide care for children who are in the midst of a deeply personal and tragic experience.”
Nearly 600 children have received intervention and treatment since the SAFEchild Advocacy Center opened on Nov. 1, 2010. The medical exam, just one piece of the services received at the advocacy center, assesses a child’s safety and well-being, and includes a thorough review of medical, developmental, educational and psychosocial history.
“Our medical team considers it a privilege, not a job, to care for children who have been victims of child abuse,” added Cristin DeRonja. “They all deliberately chose medicine as a career due to family legacies of health care providers and a passion for helping others. The child maltreatment field, however, discovered our team. Child abuse finds you no matter what role you fulfill in pediatric medicine. Our medical team was called to do more than simply recognize child abuse. They were called to move beyond recognition and wade in deeper more turbulent waters of diagnosis and treatment. They were called to help shoulder the burdens of children’s abuse experiences. They were called to feel the helplessness when there is not a simple script that can be written that will result in expedient healing and recovery. Our medical team is proof that a small group of people can and do make a difference even when our patients’ road to recovery is difficult and uncertain.”
Hundreds of families in distress turn to SAFEchild every year to learn new ways to parent, discipline, and love. SAFEchild’s parenting programs focus on building self-esteem; teaching stress and anger management, communication skills, positive discipline techniques, child development, and reducing social isolation.
We are grateful for the financial and volunteer support, and the meeting spaces generously provided by the faith community, that allows SAFEchild to heal hearts through parenting programs.
Ginna Bustle, who works with parents through SAFEchild’s Nurturing Program (serving families with children ages 4-12) uses a powerful analogy with a wooden heart to illustrate the damaging lasting effects of physical and verbal abuse. She shows the parents in her class a wooden heart bearing holes from nails to illustrate the scars left from childhood abuse and or neglect.
“ I’ve found that most parents are ‘covering’ their hearts to protect themselves,” Ginna says. “They come to us with hearts filled with holes. And their children, even at young ages, have too many holes in their hearts.”
“When you stop to look at their behaviors as a heart issue, it is easier to have compassion.” she adds. “We help them see the value of making the decision to change so as to not inflict further wounds on their children’s hearts or on their own.”
SAFEchild offers a range of parenting classes, including but not limited to programs for families impacted by domestic violence and resources for Spanish-speaking families, all of which help parents reflect on their behavior in a safe and respectful way. Often this includes examining their childhoods and the experiences that led to a damaging cycle of abuse.
“It takes a lot of courage to look at the painful past,” says Ginna, “but it does empower them to realize they had little control of what happened to them as children, but now they are in charge and they can choose nurturing parenting practices. We help parents to have the courage to uncover their hearts just a bit.”
Why is SAFEchild so important to us?
Well, that’s easy…. We are the parents of a four year old daughter and a newborn son. When our first child was born, from the minute we met her, we knew we had never known a love so special, strong and fierce. That connection alone caused us become big advocates of the prevention of child abuse, which led us to SAFEchild.
In 2009, Lauren became a volunteer for SAFEchild’s Welcome Baby program, a support and mentoring group that gives struggling new parents a way to reach out to other moms for advice and parenting tips in a safe and nurturing relationship. The realization that so many women in our community “parent” alone, and without support, strengthened our dedication to the mission of SAFEchild, which is to Stop Abuse for Every child.
Lauren’s relationship with the two moms she mentored cemented our connection to SAFEchild and the community in a much deeper way than supporting organizations like SAFEchild through special events.
The ugly truth is that abuse happens every day in our community. Our eyes have been opened to this reality, watching our brave relatives and friends share their pain and suffering from sexual abuse with the community – in hopes of stopping the cycle so that another child will not have to endure that hell.
It is our civic duty to give the children “a voice” – to speak out against the abuse, to give them a safe haven like the SAFEchild Advocacy Center if the abuse occurs, and provide support groups for them and their families, so that they can strive to live free of abuse.
No one should be allowed to take away the innocence of a young child, and no one should be held prisoner by their past. SAFEchild works everyday to insure that every child will have the opportunity to grow up in a safe, healthy and nurturing environment. We are so proud to be a part of such an amazing organization that gives so much to the community.
It is time for the community to support SAFEchild. We, the donors and the volunteers of SAFEchild, are working to make OUR community stronger by supporting this wonderful organization and thus taking a stand: no child should be abused physically, sexually or emotionally. The cycle must be broken and turning away will not accomplish the task at hand – which is to give the children a voice filled with joy, as opposed to fear.Lauren and Jason Smith Parents – Owners of 18 Seaboard and Cantina 18 – SAFEchild donors and volunteers Community Chairs, 2012 Believe in SAFEchild Campaign
SAFEchild reaches more than 6,500 first graders every year with this interactive program that teaches children skills to protect themselves from physical and sexual abuse. The Funny Tummy Feelings program also informs children how to make appropriate decisions in a variety of situations.
The program includes discussions about pleasant and unpleasant Funny Tummy Feelings or emotions; the differences between “good” and “not-so-good” secrets; how to identify and select special people in each child’s life that he or she can talk to and trust; when to say “no” and how to say “no” effectively.
The program is based on four key messages which are important for parents to reinforce with their children:
- Listen to and trust what your body is telling you about your feelings.
- If someone tells you a secret, you make a decision about whether or not to keep the secret.
- Special people can help you if you talk to them.
- You have a right to say no, even to a grown-up, if being asked to do something that makes you feel unpleasant or could be harmful to you or someone else.
Another way to reinforce these important messages is to read the following short story aloud to your child and let him or her fill in the blanks (underlined words):
- If we listen very carefully, our Funny Tummy Feelings will let us know how we should act when certain things happen to us. Some Funny Tummy Feelings are pleasant and some are unpleasant, but all Funny Tummy Feelings are our signals to be more aware of what is going on around us.
- We know that secrets can be good or not-so-good. If we have a pleasant Funny Tummy Feeling about a secret, it is okay to keep the secret. If we get an unpleasant Funny Tummy Feeling about a secret, we should talk to our SPECIAL PERSON, our support person, about that secret. It is okay to not keep a not-so-good secret.
- If someone asks us to do something that could be harmful to us or is wrong and we get an unpleasant Funny Tummy Feeling, we have a right to say NO, even if the person who asks us to do it is a grown-up. If the person does not listen to us, we have the right to talk to our Special Person about what is happening.
Another approach to this discussion with your child is to complete the following sentences:
- I get a “Funny Tummy Feeling” when. . .
- The difference between a good and a not-so-good secret is. . .
- Something I would like to talk to my Special Person about is . . .
- A time when I can say “NO” is . . .
SAFEchild will present the Funny Tummy Feelings program to 6,500 children in Wake County schools this year. The program is sustained by donations and volunteer support, and we are recruiting volunteers for the upcoming school year. If you are interested in volunteering with SAFEchild, please click on the “Volunteer” button on the home page. If you have questions about the Funny Tummy Feelings program, please contact Pilar Jennings, SAFEchild’s Funny Tummy Feelings coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make a financial contribution to support SAFEchild’s Funny Tummy Feelings program, please click on the “Donate” button on the home page. Thank you!