By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — In 2005, while fostering her 10th and final child, Randi Rubenstein recognized the challenges of parenting could be overwhelming.
“I realized there were so many kids, I couldn’t take them all in,” she says. “I had just converted my dining room into a bedroom.”
Even more troubling, she says, was the widespread problem of child abuse and neglect.
“There are reports of child abuse and neglect every year throughout the United States on behalf of six million children up to age 18,” she says. “Those numbers have not changed significantly since they’ve been recorded over the last several decades.”
So Rubenstein, a public-health professional who was living in Orange County, Calif., started Education for Successful Parenting, or ESP.
The nonprofit worked with small groups of teenagers, mostly foster children, to prepare them to live independently as adults. Initially, it worked through state foster-care agencies, then taught classes in high schools.
Rubenstein, the group’s executive director, moved in 2011 to North Carolina, where it focuses most of its effort on working directly with teens, partnering with schools, nonprofits and other agencies. It still works in California, where it serves fewer than 100 foster parents a year.
ESP teamed with Hope Center at Pullen in Raleigh, for example, to offer teens moving out of foster care a session on preparing to be a parent.
It provided training for staff at Haven House in Raleigh on motivating teens to postpone becoming parents.
And at an education program on child safety offered by the Raleigh Police Department for parents living in public housing, volunteers at the session included students taking a required “healthful living” class in high schools that include sessions on parenting led by ESP.
“We’re reaching teens before they have children, and focusing on helping them make healthy choices so they can start families from day one and be healthy so they can provide and protect their children,” Rubenstein says.
ESP serves over 1,000 students a year at Millbrook High School in Raleigh and Heritage High School in Wake Forest, providing three hours of instruction in a required one-semester health-education course.
In an evaluation of that instruction, 90 percent of students who have received it say that as a result they will be “better able to wait to conceive a child until they’re ready for the responsibility,” Rubinstein says.
The students also say they will be better able to provide, protect and nurture a child.
Operating with an annual budget of $40,000, four part-time employees and about 20 volunteers, ESP receives about 90 percent of its operating funds from private donations and the remainder through the sale of publications it creates on preparing for parenting.
The nonprofit now aims to increase its fundraising so it can expand its program this fall to two more Wake County high schools.
To help raise awareness about the need for better parenting education, and its work, the nonprofit will host a “Dream of Family” event on May 22 at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh.
Showcasing teen artwork, dance, music and poetry, and with support from a volunteer team from Leadership Raleigh, a leadership-development program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, the event will be held in the “promo court” from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
By working with teenage girls and boys before they start families, ESP aims to help them prepare for the critical, lifelong job of being a parent, while also motivating them to stay in school and work harder to succeed, Rubinstein says.
Ultimately, she says, a key goal is to “prevent child abuse and neglect at its source — the decision-making of teens that ultimately affects the strength of a future family.”