Candida Rodriguez is my mentor, while she may disagree with that statement and say it is the opposite, it is the absolute truth. My respect, admiration, and amazement at the depth of her knowledge, talent, and compassion astound me every time we work together. Candida serves her complex and ever-changing community with dedication, skill and a relentless pursuit of coordinating care for her students and families.
We are partners in the Community Cafe Initiative that began in 2015 after I completed the Johnson & Johnson School Health Leadership Program. The program required participants to bring an initiative back to our school community based on a gap that was identified through a review of available data.
We chose to introduce Community Cafes, small group gatherings where structured conversations around specific topics are held and community-based solutions are identified. It is a participant-driven discussion that empowers community members by asking about their experiences or solutions to specific issues.
Our Community Cafe Initiative was so successful that we continue hosting them three years later and the work has spread to other NJ school communities. None of this would have happened without the vision and voice of Candida. Our other partner, Laura Jimenez was also an integral part of our project and much thanks are due to her as well.
Of Candida’s many, many talents, writing is her passion and she excels at this skill. Please enjoy Candida’s description of how the Community Cafe Initiative has expanded:
“In December 2017, Mi Casita Day Care Center applied for the School Health Leadership Grant through the New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing (NJCCN). It would allow us to incentivize and expand services through the Community Cafe Initiative that we had been running to our parent community in our South Camden site. Our goal rose from the evident need of parents to work out difficulties and challenges when parental figures and caregivers were no longer living in the same household. We, as “professionals”, wanted to help parents identify barriers to positive co-parenting and how they, in turn, affected the normal development and health of their preschool children. Our objectives were to increase male participation in the health and education of young children, help parents identify healthy relationships and support systems, positive and proactive communication skills, and their role and impact as deterrents to future difficulties in all areas of health, education, and well-being.
These were our goals. But Community Cafe’s do not work in that fashion. One throws the dice, and steps away and allows the players to uncover the truth of the game of life. Sometimes, the game is tame and quiet; spoken in small whispers and short little sentences until slowly, their small collective voices become a roar. What “we” may have thought was the true issue on the board, was just a facade. Such was the case in our South Camden Community Cafe. At first, it was tame, quiet, even humorous. It was their very first time working with this concept. From a professional perspective, it was a great success. For the parents who attended, they received in turn information from a wonderful team of people they did not realize they had on their corner. The overall sense from parents and caregivers was we are here because we love our children and that is why this cafe was aptly named the Love Net Cafe. But it was the beginning of the romance; just the getting to know your part.
Several weeks later fathers/paternal caregivers were invited to return. Those who were able to did, those who could not sent their partner in their stead. Curious things happen when as professionals we lead gently and with care, thoughtfully and with respect: we give power to those who have just learnt that deep within them they have the power to roar, to speak, to stand, to self-advocate, to state their needs and expectations, to activate, to demand change. This is the summary of that meeting:
- Fathers/Paternal caregivers were motivated and eager to begin work on a Dad’s Corner at the preschool to bring resources aimed at their specific needs in raising young children.
- They expressed the need for having meetings in which fathers/paternal caregivers could have peer to peer discussions and offer each other support.
- Fathers/ Paternal caregivers expressed how often they are left out of decision making in health and education of their children.
- They expressed wanting to learn how to prepare nutritious meals for their children.
- They expressed concerns over abuse and neglect and wanted more information on positive discipline and communication.
The goal of this Community Cafe has been met. They have identified their barriers; but more importantly, they have identified solutions that they are willing to work on to attain positive outcomes beyond the peer to peer conversations. They are now setting their own board, casting their own dice and making their own moves! They are the Community Cafe; they are the Parent Cafe; they are the community we serve and they are the experts first and foremost, we are just guides!
The need to incentivize is often the first thing we think of when we want to attract a group of people. We want to provide trinkets and door prizes; make the time they’ll spend in our programs worth their time. This was a small grant, given to one of two sites. However, we chose to run the Community Cafe at both sites, Mi Casita South and Mi Casita East. Our one and only incentive at the East Camden Site was food. We were able to do that with the help of staff, Director and others, who donated coffee and donuts to our Community Cafe. We did not invite any moms at first round, and they found it at first very strange so that we had a small line of mothers in our hallway on the day of. It was cute, they were gently sent home. We met dads and paternal caregivers we had never met before. It was to become a life-changing experience. The first order of the day begged an apology; we have no male staff and that is a real shame. How can we give them a safe and open space to speak? Yet, that is what we offer. A safe, confidential space where they can say what they need to say free of all judgment. This was the first step on our Mi Casita East’s “My Daddy Counts Too” Community Cafe.
Here is the game changer; a group of men gets together and one typically assumes testosterone levels will rise, chests muscles will expand, backbones will become ramrod straight and the scent of machismo would permeate every single corner of the room. The surface of the board seems oily and sleek with boasting and hallow chatter; that is the sitcom, the puppet show that we often see or hear about, the pretend play of men. The Community Cafe takes away that pretense and creates an equal playing field, where we are either all knights or kings but never pawns. We sit together in a circle, we introduce one another, and we begin with one funny truth and funny lie about parenting and there in that silly moment, a bond is created. We are sharing with one another, fears and hopes, but most of all emotions that have never been voiced, fears that have been hidden and tears both of frustration and release.
The Community Cafe encouraged this group of men to speak of an array of deep emotions, including feelings of isolation, feeling left out of their children lives, and feeling as if they were failing their children. Those who have special needs children shared on how it felt on how that circumstance set them apart. Yet, they touched and held each other, patted and bumped one another in solidarity. And when there were tears, there was no reproach, no judgment, no mocking. When they laughed, they did so with gusto and one could see the spirit of the little boys they once were. But what they really worked on, what they shared amongst them were strategies for success!. We just kept wondering, why did it take so long to get here? Why had we as an agency not realized sooner this was needed?
When sometime later one mother approached me in conversation regarding that event; her only remark was to say how important that meeting had been for her husband and how it had brought an awareness to him regarding his role as son, husband and father and how each is interconnected to the hopes he has for his children. Whatever it was that he disclosed to her, must have been deep indeed because it touched her and in turn, it has touched me too.
Today, as we end our school year with our final Community Cafe, we share in the collective voices of our fathers and mothers who have said we are reclaiming our voice, we are creating our actions steps and we are demanding change in a community that despite adversity is filled with hope for the future. Yes, we shared a lot of concerns today, but it did not outweigh the solutions our parents identified, the action steps needed to take action and the importance of working as a team for continued success! That is Community, and you can add a little Cafe whenever you like!” – Candida Rodriguez
“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface, but connected in the deep” – William James.
As a Family Development Worker at Mi Casita Daycare Center in Camden, New Jersey. Candida Rodriguez’s greatest goal is to help the families she serves to realize their own ability to advocate for themselves and their children. By utilizing the strengthening families model, she and her team help support the early learning community through shared power and education. In doing so, they promote the concept that the first 2,000 days of a child’s life are the most important.
Candida is a graduate of Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, with an Associates Degree in Liberal Arts. In addition, she holds a Family Development Credential from Rutgers University. Candida holds membership in the Parent Advisory Council of the Camden City School District and is a founding member of the Pediatric Provider/School Nurse/Community Roundtable through the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers. Candida, along with her team develop and deliver training and workshops to parents, peers and the community at large throughout Camden City and Camden County, New Jersey.
To find out more about the Community Cafe Initiative please click here: https://relentlessschoolnurse.com/communitycafes