Ara Parker is a child advocate who says "parents are my thing."
Look to the parents, she says, because "children don't bring themselves to you, their parents do. It's the parents who set the mood, who determine attitudes."
The organizer and coordinator of 11 YWCA-sponsored before- and after-school programs on Los Angeles School District sites, she also talks about the importance of readying children to join mainstream society. The "mainstream has to be for everyone," she says.". . . We have to have a mainstream that involves different cultures."
Culture Within a Culture
And she refers to her own upbringing to support her philosophy, telling how she was a minister's daughter growing in "a culture within a culture" in New Orleans. Her peer group of blacks, she observes, was brought up with "a sense of direction that is far different from today. You may not have had money, but you had a sense of pride."
Ara Parker, at an age she calls "seasoned," is in her prime--after all those years of carting children to dancing and music lessons, leading Scout troops, being active in the PTA, the YWCA, and her church. When her two children were grown, she went back to school to obtain a bachelor's degree and a master's in human development.
She was appointed coordinator of Child Development Services for the YWCA of Los Angeles in 1984, but in addition she's chairperson-elect of Mayor Tom Bradley's Child Care Advisory Committee, president of the Los Angeles/South Bay affiliate of the National Black Child Development Institute, on the development policy board of the Children's Lobby and a member of the Children's Roundtable.
She regularly conducts workshops for professionals and para-professionals in child development and for the Southern California Assn. for the Education of Young Children and other groups on parenting skills.
A proponent of Beacon Enterprise Self Pronouncing Alphabets, a phonics program that uses animal images, Parker conducts workshops and served as a consultant for its Reading Readiness Program since 1972. Last year she organized the first YWCA International Children's Festival, which involved about 2,000 children from Watts to the San Fernando Valley, plus their parents, dancing and singing on the Windsor Hills School campus.
Of her family: son Greg, 36, was graduated from Yale University and is a music-writing urban consultant; daughter Marilyn, 31, who received her doctorate from Claremont Graduate School, is a training consultant. Her husband, James, retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department last year as a captain and its highest-ranking black. The couple live in a house they built 20 years ago in Baldwin Hills.
Talk to Ara Parker and the message is clear: There are no easy answers. Not for marriages, she said with a teasing glance at her husband of 37 years, nor for raising children. "Some parents don't take the time to even try to nurture their kids and find a way to survive. Other parents do, and their kids turn out wrong," she said, noting the irony that life sometimes brings. "The important thing is that parents always be supportive, no matter what. And they have to accept that no one is perfect. There are no perfect parents, no perfect children. But despite it all, you have to love, have faith and a belief in each other."
That said, she zeroed in on her mission, "to continue to expose parents to the opportunities they have within the community.
"As I tell teachers in our training workshops, if you can get parents to understand their role, what their responsibility is, it's going to show with the child. . . . The parents' role? It's to nurture, direct, be a role model. It's an understanding of basic parenting skills."
What happens too often, she said, is that educators and youth organizers think parents don't know what to do about their kids--so they put the parents aside and concentrate on the children. Big mistake.
"At the YWCA, when we started the very first day-care program (Angeles Mesa Children's Learning Center) everyone thought my ideas were crazy. That was in 1970 and we had an enrollment of 16. A year later, we had 30, then a full enrollment of 126 and now a waiting list. But the key to this is the very first week, we organized a parent committee. Parents were not nominated to be officers, they had to volunteer to serve. It created a special sense of pride. We had fathers in the groups too, even single fathers. And they sent each other to conferences. One mother went to six."