Hilltown organization offers a village of help to new parents

  • Jeanne Sargent of Plainfield, a volunteer with It Takes a Village, plays with 10-month-old Rowan Pytko. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Jeanne Sargent of Plainfield, a volunteer with It Takes a Village, plays with 10-month-old Rowan Pytko. Sargent visits Rowan and her family once a week to give her mother, Whitney Shepperd, a little time to herself. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Jeanne Sargent of Plainfield, a volunteer with It Takes a Village, plays with 10-month-old Rowan Pytko. Sargent visits Rowan and her family once a week to give her mother, Whitney Shepperd, a little time to herself. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Jeanne Sargent of Plainfield, a volunteer with It Takes a Village, who never had children of her own, says the program gives her a chance to spend time with children. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Jeanne Sargent of Plainfield, a volunteer with It Takes a Village, plays with 10-month-old Rowan Pytko. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Whitney Shepperd plays with her 10-month-old daughter, Rowan, in her Plainfield home. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Annie Hazlett of Charlemont sorts through clothing at the Village Closet in Cummington. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Mollie Hartford’s 2-year-old son, Calvin, entertains himself in a play area of the Village Closet in Cummington while she manages the shop. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/5/2018 1:01:45 PM

When Jeanne Sargent of Plainfield arrived to watch 10-month-old Rowan Pytko on a Wednesday morning, Rowan was having a bad day.

The baby was teething. No matter how many toys that Sargent, 72, tried to distract her with — a Mini Mouse ball, stuffed animals, cloth books — nothing worked. And every time Rowan’s mother, Whitney Shepperd, tried to sneak away from the play area, Rowan would crawl to the gate, crying, and raise her arms to be held.

After a while, Sargent gave up her distraction efforts, and Shepperd picked up Rowan.

Today is “a mama kind of day,” Sargent said.

On most Wednesdays, Sargent, a home-visit volunteer with It Takes a Village, a Cummington-based nonprofit that helps families with new babies, typically watches Rowan, her 8-year-old sister Gwen Pytko, and their boxer, Guinness. That allows Shepperd, 37, who works part-time as an occupational therapist, some time to herself. Her husband, Robert Pytko, a plumber, works full-time.

But on this day, because of Rowan’s irritability, and with Gwen and Guinness spending time with grandparents, Sargent instead went outside to weed in the garden.

“It’s not about me,” she said, pausing at the door. Instead, it’s about whatever the parents need. On any given visit, Sargent, like other home-visit volunteers, helps with tasks such as child care, cleaning, home maintenance projects, laundry and food preparation. While the intention is to lend a hand for the first few months after a baby is born, Sargent said she often volunteers on her own prerogative for long after that.

For Sargent, who never had children of her own and has volunteered with 11 families so far, it’s a chance to play with children and give new parents an assist. And for those like Shepperd, Sargent’s help is an invaluable set of extra hands.

“Everybody can benefit from this. Everybody needs a Jeanne,” Shepperd said, before heading upstairs to put Rowan down for a nap.

Working together

It Takes a Village was founded in 2009 by Maureen Shea, previously of Cummington, who is now a Pilates instructor in Hadley. Her idea was to connect new parents with the community and prevent isolation. There are about 35 volunteers — all of whom are vetted via a background check before they’re able to go into people’s homes — including drivers, sorters for the donated items the organizations gives away, and home visit volunteers. Through the program, volunteers visit once per week for two hours, for up to 12 weeks.

Because of the topography, isolation is common in the region’s hilltowns, said Lisa Goding of Huntington, the organization’s co-executive director and family support services director. It Takes a Village helps families in Franklin, Hampshire, Berkshire and Hampden counties.

Hilltown families who participate do not have to qualify in any way. Goding noted that income is not a factor, and new parents can simply request a volunteer.

From small beginnings, It Takes a Village has grown exponentially.

These days, in addition to the home visitation program, the organization offers free baby clothing and maternity items, holds weekly support groups, and hosts periodic presentations on parenting-related topics, like ways to help children sleep better and how to limit screen time. Free child care is provided during all events.

Inside the closet

As she talked last week, Goding was sitting in Room 114 of Berkshire Trail Elementary School on Main Street in Cummington, home of The Village Closet, which serves as the organization’s base of operations. The town rents out the space for a discounted rate.

Around her, a dozen or so parents browsed through boxes of used clothing. On one shelf, next to a bassinet filled with dolls, was a Yoomi self-warming bottle, and on the opposite side of the room were shelves laden with books intended for parents. A few children ran through the aisles, playing; others sat in a small corner library, and from next door, excited shouts could be heard from the school’s gymnasium, which served as a space for supervised child care.

“When I come here, it lifts my spirits to see this tremendous community,” said Barbara Ferrante of Williamsburg. Ferrante said her grandchildren had recently traveled from Minneapolis for a visit, and, in preparation, she had borrowed from The Village Closet a Pack ’n Play portable bed, musical instruments and outlet plugs to childproof her home.

“They say there’s no such thing as childproofing. I did my best,” she said with a laugh.

‘A huge gift’

Last year, the program served about 1,200 families, estimated Mollie Hartford of Northampton, co-executive director along with Goding, and director of the home visitation program. Of that, 36 families received home visits, and 100 or so attended the parenting groups. The rest received items from the closet.

“It’s a huge gift,” said Kim Wachtel of Cummington.

Wachtel, who works part-time and is in a band called Radio Free Earth, was at The Village Closet visiting Helene Tamarin, a volunteer who pays home visits to Wachtel.

“To have a volunteer come during those tender first few months and volunteer is really useful,” Wachtel said. Before connecting with Tamarin, she added, “I was not sleeping. I had a 3-year-old and a 3-day-old. Helene came over and they all slept in a chair while my husband and I slept in bed.”

Tamarin noted that she gets a lot out of volunteering.

“My children haven’t given me grandchildren yet, so I have to grab them where I can,” she said.

In a back room connected to The Village Closet, Tamarin opened a door to a hallway to show where six trash bags of donated clothing and a few baby items had been dropped off earlier in the morning. Other disposable items, like diapers, are given by local nonprofit organizations including the United Way. As a whole, It Takes a Village is funded mostly by individual donations and through grants from organizations including Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield.

Nearby, Sarah O’Dell of Colrain was looking through a bin of shirts. Without The Village Closet, which is free and open to anyone regardless of income, she said, she doesn’t know how she’d have provided clothing for her 14-year-old son and 9-year-old twins when they were younger.

“There’s no better blessing to a parent than to not have to worry about clothing,” she said.

While there is no requirement to return items, Hartford noted that many people give back clothes once their children have outgrown them. And others, like Farrente, borrow items for a short period of time and then return them after.

For a while, Hartford lived and worked in New York City. She remembers feeling alone during her pregnancy there and in the months after as a new mother.

Based on that experience, she said, she is now quick to offer help.

“I now see other parents, other mamas having a moment and I’ll say ‘Do you need a hand? Can I carry that for you?’ And that can turn around their day,” she said.

Hartford, who is also a childbirth educator and doula, heard about the program through her work and became a volunteer. She noted the community that she’s formed through volunteering extends well beyond the scope of It Takes a Village.

A few months ago, Hartford was diagnosed with cancer, and she experienced the power of community firsthand.

“We didn’t cook for two months in my house, because every single person in my network showed up and brought us dinner,” Hartford said. “It was shocking. It shouldn’t have been shocking. They wanted to help like I want to help. It’s the community that we have built.”

Looking to the future, she said, program staff and volunteers would like to pass along their model to other communities, and expand their reach locally to serve more families in other towns.

Filling a gap

Especially in rural communities, a new parent can feel isolated during the first few months taking care of a new child, said Kat Pangborn of Haydenville, the organization’s program coordinator. Pangborn, along with Hartford and Goding, is one of a few paid employees who manage the organization and maintain The Village Closet part time.

“You may be with just your children throughout the day, and not other adults,” she said. Because of that, she continued, receiving regular visits from a helpful community member is important for parents’ to maintain their mental health.

Pangborn sat at a table just down the hall from The Village Closet, having just led a new parents support group. Nearby, Charity Benjamin of Indigo Wholistic Healing Center in Florence, who often attends the groups, was giving other parents free chair massages.

Goding said that isolation dramatically increases the risk factor for postpartum depression and anxiety from one-in-seven to about 40 percent. Thus, when someone extends a helping hand, the impact is powerful, she said.

As an example, Goding recalled the time a new mother who’d just graduated from the Grace House Center for Human Development in Northampton, which provides drug and alcohol treatment for women, came in to The Village Closet pushing an infant in a stroller with a toddler balanced on the handlebars. The woman noticed a double stroller in the corner, and Goding told her to take it.

“She was so touched she literally fell to the floor crying, and said, ‘This is the best day of my life.’ It was a symbol that maybe everything would be OK,” Goding said.

At least in part, It Takes a Village meets a need because, over time, society has changed. New parents don’t have the same kind of extended family support networks they had decades ago, Pangborn said. Families are more scattered.

“People used to have grandmothers, aunts, uncles, generations that could say ‘This is how we handle it,’ or ‘We can handle this together,’ but now it’s just you and the kid, by yourself,” she said. “We’re trying to create a situation where people can learn from each other and share resources.”

How to connect

The Village Closet is open weekly every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and on the first and third Saturday of each month during the same hours. It is also open one Thursday evening per month, with varying hours, and by appointment. To find out which Thursday it’s open, watch It Takes a Village’s Facebook page.

Lisa Goding said the organization is always looking for volunteers. To sign up to be a volunteer, or for more information on the programs and upcoming events offered by It Takes a Village, visit www.hilltownvillage.org. To contact Goding or Mollie Hartford, email info@hilltownvillage.org.

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