Dr. Sally LaPoint

Meet the Parents...

    The method of creating children comes quite naturally to humans. But the method of raising them, well.that's a little more difficult. It seems we are not born with an innate knowledge of how to mold our offspring into happy, productive members of society; this behavior is mostly learned, and chances are we will raise our children in much the same way as our parents raised us.
    Dr. Sally LaPoint has spent her entire career in the field of education, and it is her desire to share what she knows and help those who would like to improve their parenting skills. She is the director of the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the Penn Center's Early Childhood, Family Initiative and Fatherhood Development Program. Long title, but the idea is clear: help at-risk families in rural areas give their kids a better start.
    "We actually go into the homes and visit the parents and children," said LaPoint, who has been with the program since its inception in 1991. "We talk about parenting skills and take developmentally appropriate books so parents can read to their children."
    The program has served over 600 families, primarily residents of St. Helena Island who meet the federal poverty guidelines. They focus on reaching children who have not yet entered school, bringing them books so that they can have exposure to the early elements of education.                 LaPoint acknowledges that when a book has been read to a toddler a minimum of six times, that child will start to point at words and try to pronounce them.
    "What I have seen is that books are a prize to these children," she said. "They put their arms around them. When they see the home visitor, they tug at her bag because they know she has something for them. These are children who may not have gotten a good start to their education if it hadn't been for this program."
    The program has also included field trips that relate in some way to the literature. After reading a book about trains, for example, children might take a train ride from Yemassee to Jesup, Georgia. There has even been a family outing to Orlando, complemented by instructions on how parents can budget for and plan a similar trip themselves.
    One especially important component of the program, said LaPoint, was designed to help parents further their own education. "You just can't earn a decent living and take care of your family these days without having some kind of educational background," she said. "We are living in a changing world and you've got to keep up your knowledge base. We're happy when we can embrace some of the parents' desires to develop themselves, and it is within our budget to do that."
    Already, three mothers have earned bachelor's degrees, two of whom have become teachers, and one of whom has stayed on St. Helena.             Fathers have gone to Technical College of the Lowcountry to become barbers, brick masons and mechanics. One father-of-four attended Armstrong State to get a degree in physical therapy, all the while holding down a fulltime job. It is amazing what motivated people can accomplish. And of course, the benefits go beyond just themselves and extend to their children.
    "It's really a plus when kids can go see their mommies and daddies graduate," said LaPoint. "It raises the bar for them and they know they have to go higher."
    LaPoint is originally from Port Arthur, Texas, where she went to a historically black high school at a time when segregation was still the norm. Her desire to influence the educational system led her to pursue a bachelor's degree in elementary education, later her master's in reading education, and finally her doctorate in educational administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In between, she worked in the public school system, including as an educational consultant for the desegregation program in Illinois. Though at one time her goal was to become a superintendent, she eventually realized that her ideals were leading her in another direction. After all she had learned in her own education, it was time to give back, and she has done that through the USCB and Penn Center's program.
    "We have to prepare a solid foundation and a desire for learning, and then certainly a desire for disseminating useful information to others," she said. "We can't just hold onto it for ourselves. I feel that I have given as much of myself as I can, and I enjoy helping others and seeing how their lives have been enriched by the work we're doing."
    Perhaps the most unique aspect of LaPoint's work is the Fatherhood Development Program. This evolved out of the fathers' rather uninspired participation in parenting classes that seemed to be more geared toward the mothers. When LaPoint asked them if they would be interested in fatherhood classes, they responded enthusiastically.
    "The prevailing culture was that dads go to work and earn a living while the moms stay home and take care of the house and the kids," she said. "These men wanted to be more involved with their kids, but they didn't know how."
    The first class, attended by 18 fathers, was held in 1993 under the direction of Curtis Dixon (pictured top right), who is still a consultant for the fatherhood program. "The stigma is, black men don't spend time with their children," said Dixon candidly. "So the fact that they were starting to bond with their kids was neat because they got a chance to see how important they were to their children."
    Dixon's flexible approach to teaching allowed him to incorporate activities, such as playing basketball or going to dinner at a steakhouse together, encouraging the men to open up and feel more comfortable with each other. Once the initial barriers had been broken down, they were able to discuss such topics as how to read to children, be affectionate with them, and spend quality time, even if it's just by allowing them to tag along while they cut the grass.
    "You have to have an appetite for your children," said Dixon, who has four daughters of his own. "Not just know you love them, but feel it and show it. A lot of these fathers didn't even like hugging, so we wanted to teach them to nurture and support their children. And that's where the generational stuff comes in, because the children grow up and pass that on."
    The success Dixon had with the fatherhood classes has inspired him to continue the program in Ridgeland. There the focus has been on court-ordered dads, and the classes will soon be taken into the correctional institutions to reach out to incarcerated fathers so that they may have better parenting skills when they are released. The emphasis here will be on breaking the destructive cycles of abuse and poverty.
    Both Dixon and LaPoint know that the work they are doing is having a positive impact on local families, which will hopefully continue on through the generations.
    "When parents not only speak, but model what they embrace, it shows children how to carry on those basic values," said LaPoint. "And then our children will go far, maybe farther than we went."