Parents Reach Beyond Their Own Families

by Pamela Porter
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 1, February 2002, Family and Community Connections with Schools

PRO family liaison/trainers Mary Jo Roch, Julia Calbert, and Chris Chapman review the updated family training manual, developed by the organization and distributed to any parent who requests one.

Our home literally became our asylum—we felt very alone, very isolated," says Chris Chapman, who now works to help other parents avoid some of the heartache she has experienced as the mother of an autistic child. When her "perfect baby" began exhibiting self-abusive and inconsolable behavior, she and her husband had no one to turn to. Even family members were overwhelmed by the little boy's out-of-control conduct.

Relief finally came from concerned special education teachers in Las Cruces, NM, where her 10-year-old son began attending a class for autistic students. Today she offers similar support in her position of family liaison/ trainer for Parents Reaching Out (PRO), a New Mexico organization founded and operated by families. Because of her own experience, Chapman can identify "with those parents who have been struggling for years and years."

Working from their kitchens in Albuquerque, the PRO founders joined forces 20 years ago to get the best education available for their children with disabilities. That meant educating themselves—and in many cases, the school districts as well—about what services these kids, from age 3-21 years, were entitled to receive by law. The parents then became informed advocates and made positive decisions to help these students achieve their potential. Sharing their experiences with others in need became their vocation.

Executive director Sallie Van Curen has been with PRO since its inception. She is gratified that last year alone PRO touched approximately 58,000 families in a variety of ways throughout the state. Parents of newborns to young adults have found an understanding ear—as well as a source of ongoing support and information, whatever the question.

PRO Helps Families Make Changes for Children

Photo of Jill Slack
IPRO executive director Sallie Van Curen

PRO's five major goals are to (1) decrease family stress and isolation, (2) increase all families' knowledge and use of available resources, (3) increase the confidence and skills of families by providing emotional support and opportunities to acquire special information and training, (4) enhance the education, understanding, and sensitivity of persons who work with children and families, and (5) work for positive changes in the systems that affect our children.

It achieves these goals through several projects (see "PRO Projects Focus on a Variety of Needs") all available in Spanish or one of the Native American dialects in the state.

"Parents really do care about their children. Answering the phone, listening to the tears, hearing the frustration—you realize they care very much about their kids," says Van Curen, whose organization gives families the courage to intervene on their children's behalf.

Program director Larry Fuller nods enthusiastically and adds, "The number-one indicator of how students do in school is parent involvement." Like all of the full-time PRO staff, he puts in far more than 40 hours a week because of the organization's emphasis on maintaining close, personal contacts. "The highlight for me is when we work with a family and that family makes an informed decision based on what's best for them. That's just primo stuff!"

Project Petroglyphs Makes a Difference in Southwestern New Mexico Schools

In the tiny village of Columbus, within sight of the U.S.-Mexican border, the PRO process begins anew. A young woman discusses her son's situation with Eugene Sierra who works with PRO's Project Petroglyphs in southwestern New Mexico. Project Petroglyphs has been funded by Goals 2000 and targets parents with children in public schools.

The mother is encouraged by Sierra's offer to help in any way. Showing her an example letter for requesting a screening evaluation of her child, he cautions her to keep copies of all correspondence and make notes on all conversations with district officials.

"It's good that you're getting help now," Sierra tells her. "Your child could be labeled a troublemaker, but he probably causes a disturbance because he realizes something is wrong, something is not clicking. Most kids would rather face a trip to the principal's office than be embarrassed in front of their peers because of being unable to keep up," he says.

Armed with PRO's Handbook of Parental Rights—which explains federal and state regulations, courses of action to take, and other valuable information—the relieved-looking mother leaves, and Sierra discloses how he became involved with the organization.

PRO Projects Focus on a Variety of Needs

Parents Reaching Out (PRO) helps families across New Mexico through the five projects described below.

Project Adobe focuses on working with parents of special education students. It provides parent training, technical assistance, and information to develop and maintain a network of trained volunteer parents. These PRO volunteers guide families through the educational maze, assisting them with their child's evaluation, diagnostic assessments, and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process.

With Dreamcatcher, a parent-to-parent project, PRO strives to connect families with a volunteer whose situation is similar and who offers emotional support as well as information. This program helps parents receiving early intervention services, advising mothers and fathers how to build new dreams and work with professionals to see them come true, for their young child with a developmental delay or those at risk for such a delay. "Our goal is to get families off to a good, smooth start," says program director Larry Fuller.

Questions about health care issues and children with special needs are answered by the PRO program, Family Voices of New Mexico, which assists families in understanding their rights regarding issues like insurance, managed care, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The Families as Faculty project is a collaborative effort between the School of Medicine and College of Education at the University of New Mexico and Western New Mexico University that enables future doctors and educators to learn firsthand about persons with disabilities by matching them with these families.

Project Petroglyphs, named for the ancient pictures etched in New Mexico's rocks, seeks to aid all parents dealing with the state public schools, no matter what their situation. Funded by a Goals 2000 Parental Assistance Program Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the project offers one-on-one support, telephone assistance, and hundreds of workshops and educational opportunities. The grant also established PRO as New Mexico's Parent Information and Resource Center.

Liaisons trained by the Parents as Teachers project, such as Mirela Rivera, are available to answer questions and check in on parents of children from birth to three years old. "All the parents I work with are different," she explains. "Everyone wants to know if their children are developing normally. I can point out milestones to watch for." Her emphasis is on early literacy, and she stresses the importance of reading—and making frequent eye contact with the child—at any age.

 Parents Reaching Out staff meet to discuss PRO activities: (from left) Larry Fuller, program manager for Project Adobe; Sallie Van Curen, executive director, Ann Stinger, program manager for elementary/secondary education; and Alicia Amastasio, comptroller.

He says he wasn't aware his youngest son had a learning disability until the fourth grade, when he started bringing home D's and F's on his report card. The father diligently spent his evenings going over homework with the student, confident the grades would improve. They didn't.

Sierra shakes his head and continues, "In my culture, you insult your kid—you say you're dumb, what's wrong with you, etc." But when he decided to sit in on his child's class, "within the first two hours, I realized something was wrong," he says. He confronted the school and was offered no help, but his wife Roccio, who works with Head Start in Columbus, told him the district was required to evaluate the boy. He calls his own behavior before he knew of his son's learning disabilities "heartbreaking." But now with the services his son has subsequently received, the father says his son is learning to compensate for the processing problem that was causing him to perform poorly in school.

"Immediately PRO gave me the information I needed," he notes. That initial contact has transformed Sierra into an advocate—serving 45-50 families in the Deming, Silver City, and Columbus areas— who is able to tackle all issues in his work with Project Petroglyphs.

Family liaison/trainer Kimberly Bryand gets help translating materials from English into Spanish from Julia Calbert.

Mobilizing parents to improve conditions in the community by working together has been one of Sierra's achievements. A tragic event in Deming,* where a 12-year-old boy shot and killed a younger girl, prompted this action.

When the district's superintendent scheduled a meeting to invite parent input about the incident, only a handful showed up. Sierra used his networking skills to encourage each of the participants to bring others, and the number soon swelled to about a hundred interested residents. They brainstormed and were able to identify, then prioritize common concerns by following The Right Question Project training he received from PRO.

Parents felt empowered when they learned the technique, which encourages the formation of open-ended questions to set realistic objectives. In response to parent requests, the school's visitor policy is more strictly enforced, and the mayor and police chief have also agreed to provide increased security.

Family liaison/trainer Eugene Sierra meets with PRO volunteer Ricardo Gutierrez R., who helps parents in Columbus, New Mexico, and Palomas, Mexico, understand educational opportunities for all children. Through a special arrangement with the school district, children from Palomas attend school across the border in Columbus.

The fact that the isolated community offered youngsters no recreational opportunities emerged as another top issue—especially with the temptations of illegal activities waiting just across the border in Palomas, Mexico. Parents pitched in to clear weeds and rocks from school property, and the district installed new playground equipment and basketball goals. An activities bus was also added to the Columbus route so high school students could stay after class for meetings and sports.

"Our problem in this area is that our people don't question authority. We don't want to push it any further or make waves," Sierra observes. But, like all those involved in Parents Reaching Out, he believes, "The parents are the experts—they know what's best for their children."

*Columbus is in the Deming Public Schools district.

Parents Reaching Out
Telephone: 800-524-5176
Web site:

RQP Empowers Parents

For the past decade, the Right Question Project (RQP) has been teaching people to advocate for themselves and their children using a simple tool—question formulation. The technique challenges people to think in questions rather than in statements, helps them prioritize their concerns, and gives them practice in a step-by-step process for formulating questions.

RQP has its roots in a 1991 parent involvement project that was based in Lawrence, Massachusetts. "Very often we heard from parents that they weren't participating in the educational process because they didn't know what to ask," says Luz Santana, co-director of the project. She says she and co-director Dan Rothstein began helping parents form their own questions, which led to the Question Formulation Technique. Rather than providing parents with a list of questions they should ask, RQP encourages parents to develop critical thinking skills and rely on the expertise they have developed instead of depending on others. "We don't lecture," she says, "but lead parents through the process." She notes that New Mexico's Parents Reaching Out (PRO) group, like many other service organizations, has been able to integrate RQP training into its regular work. In the case of PRO, the training has even been incorporated into home visits.

The technique is successful because it empowers people to effect change in institutions and systems. They begin by learning to be advocates for themselves and their children, then are able to move beyond advocating in one setting to navigate their way through other bureaucratic systems—often health care or social services systems.

Besides the Question Formulation Technique, RQP offers two training packages: "Curriculum and Report Cards," designed to increase parent participation in their child's education and "The Tool," a more extensive program that teaches parents how to address various issues in their child's education, such as placement, curriculum, standards and assessment, and decision-making processes. For more information on RQP products and training, visit the organization's Web site at


Pamela Porter is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Las Cruces, NM. She is a frequent contributor to SEDLetter and is currently working on a book about New Mexico ghost towns to be published by the University of New Mexico Press.

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