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04/29/2021

AP/OD | How Virtual Classes Became Parent Support Groups During COVID

When COVID-19 began to spike in Los Angeles and Orange County, Children’s Bureau was faced with a hard decision: shut their doors to the 48,000 families they served, or reinvent their programs online. After building trust in their community for over 100 years, Giovanna A. Lipow, Program Manager of the Prevention Department at Children’s Bureau, was nervous.

“It really moved fast, we thought: how are we going to do this? We really had no idea,” she said. “We knew this wasn’t going to be short-term, we saw we needed to change the entire infrastructure.”

The Learning Curve

Children’s Bureau adapted quickly, moving their services online within weeks of California’s first wave of shutdowns. Children’s Bureau has been a partner organization of Abriendo Puertas / Opening Doors for over 10 years, and swiftly became one of the most innovative family-serving organizations to use AP/OD curriculum in an online setting.

Giovanna A. Lipow and AP/OD facilitator Marvel Martinez spearheaded the effort. But the learning curve was steep, they admit. “We were watching Zoom tutorials, trying to learn the technology. And also rereading the curriculum multiple times trying to get creative on implementing the in-person activities online.”

Then, once the class began, “I wasn’t only teaching them the curriculum, but how to type in the chatbox, raise their hand, turn off mute…we were all helping each other learn and adapt” Marvel said.

From Coursework to Support Group

With the help of AP/OD virtual facilitation workshops, Marvel and the Prevention Department at Children’s Bureau got the online classes running smoothly. However, it became clear that the AP/OD virtual classroom had become something even bigger.

“In lesson five, the class meditates together,” Marvel said, “and the parents told me afterward, ‘This is what we needed. Just five minutes. We probably wouldn’t have had those five minutes of self-care without this class.’”

The classes had become a virtual peer support group for parents during the isolation, stress, and uncertainty of the pandemic. At the end of each session, Marvel would leave time to trade resources: drive-through diaper donations, food banks, emergency relief funds, rent assistance. Everyone made sure each member of the group could pay the bills, feed their children, and find unemployment benefits.  

“We have very resourceful families who would bring new information and updates that Children’s Bureau hadn’t even heard of yet,” Giovanna said. “We saw the parents find their power to organize and share information. In Marvel’s class it became a very safe platform to share, I feel very proud of that. With social distancing, we needed connection more than ever.”

As the pandemic progressed, it became obvious virtual learning was not a short-term project. Children’s Bureau needed long-term solutions for keeping their parents engaged. Marvel started to incorporate a rotating line-up of guest speakers.

“We invited coworkers from the mental health department to speak on the services for counseling, and the preschool program director to speak on the importance of choosing the right school,” Marvel said. “I wanted the parents to see that even if they couldn’t share everything with me about what they needed, there were other people who could help.”

Going virtual opened up new opportunities for collaboration across the community and the organization. Giovanna said, “It allowed us to be more creative. It was so important to integrate the voice of the community, and make them partners along the way.”

A Return to In-Person Learning?

As vaccination rates increase across the country, Children’s Bureau is exploring ideas for returning to in-person classes, but their team remains cautious. Giovanna said, “We’re evaluating a hybrid model. Our office does have a big patio, auditorium, and parking lot. We can host class outside if weather permits. I’m sure we’ll continue being creative. The most important thing is ensuring the community feels safe and comfortable.”

Ultimately, Marvel said, the dream is to gather all of the parent cohorts for an in-person graduation once it’s safe. The Children’s Bureau graduated six cohorts, totaling 58 parents, during 2020.

In the last class of each cohort, Marvel remembers, “They all said, ‘Why does it have to end? Can we please continue?’ Parents were crying. It had become a space for them to learn and share their experiences during these difficult times.”

“Each group is so unique but in the end, it felt like a family,” Giovanna said.

Marvel dreams of giving each of the parents a cap and gown—a recognition of the enormous hardship they all overcame together. “It would be so wonderful to meet each other in person, to hug, and to congratulate each other,” she said. “Someday soon, it will be a big fiesta.”

For more information on facilitating Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors virtually please contact dcastaneda@ap-od.org 

Read more on AP/OD’s website

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