April 1, 2013—At 5:20 p.m. parents and children followed the scent of cheese pizza pouring out of the Earthfoods Café. The café quickly turned from a still sanctuary, to a room filled with the squeals of laughing and crying children, as parents registered for the Dinner On Us event.
The Dinner On Us program, arranged by the Office of Family Resources, provides UMass students, faculty, and Amherst Family Center families, an opportunity to learn skills of parenting and maintaining family relations. The program, which is open to households with children one day to five years old, occurs on 10 Mondays throughout each semester. During the event, every registered household receives a pizza dinner, and a parking pass. Then, each household separates. While the children attend childcare, the parents join an informational workshop. Frequently, once a household begins attending the program’s events, they consistently incorporate the events into their schedule, making Dinner On Us a weekly program for more than 20 households in the Amherst area.
One such household is that of Malinda Sears. Sears is an undergraduate student at UMass Amherst, studying wildlife conservation and hoping to graduate in May. Striving to finish her requirements to graduate on time, Sears often finds herself trying to balance coursework with caring for her six-year-old daughter, Victoria.
Sears has attended the program with Victoria for the last three years. She learned of the program through Victoria’s pre-school. “They had a flyer offering free child care, dinner, and adult interaction, and somebody else cooks,” said Sears. “I’m a single-mom, so providing dinner is a major plus in my life,” she said with a chuckle.
In 1997, when Joanne Levenson, the current Director of the Office Of Family Resources, conceived the Dinner On Us program, she considered each aspect that she would hope for in a family program. “I was pregnant with my first child at the time and I thought to myself, what would I want,” said Levenson. Her innovative idea of providing a free dinner and childcare, as aspects of a family program, was unprecedented in Massachusetts. This allowed her to apply for, and receive, funding for the program through state grants. Since its formation, Levenson has continued to lead the program, and provide support to households in the Amherst area.
According to Sears however, the program offers significantly more than advertised. “The social connection is the number one thing I like,” said Sears. She enjoys spending time interacting with other parents, and reuniting with friends she has met through the program. Additionally, she said, “I’m one of those people who likes to be informed.” Always hoping to improve at motherhood, Sears explained that although she may not always employ the techniques she learns during the workshops, she at least knows they exist.
Dinner On Us allows Sears to connect to a community of people, in a similar situation to her own. “It’s just somewhere to go, where nothing matters, and someone else will take care of my kid and I know she’s safe,” stated Sears. “Not having to always think is a life saver.”
Sears went on to say the program also benefits Victoria. “Socially, it helps her with my divorce,” said Sears. “We’ve moved two or three times so it gives her a sense of security and stability.”
Professionals in the area, recruited by Levenson, provide techniques and skills to the parents, like Sears. Frequently, Levenson draws on professors from the UMass Psychology, Education, and Nutrition to lead workshops during the program events. There, the professors present findings from recent studies, particularly those relevant to the participating parent’s children.
The most recent event was “Television’s and Electronic Media’s Impact on Young Children and on Parent-Child Interactions,” led by Daniel Anderson, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, at UMass Amherst. During the workshop, parents gathered in a small rectangular room, where all 30 parents squeezed into two concentric circles. The inner circle of parents surrounded the wooden, oblong conference table, and the outer circle of parents lined the room’s stark white walls in brown metal folding chairs. They all watched attentively as Anderson described select studies he had conducted about how television affects children of different ages. Some parents took notes, while others engaged directly with Anderson, asking questions such as, “If I say McDonald’s is bad, even after a colorful commercial that my two year old daughter really likes, does my opinion affect her?”
The information presented is prepared for the registered parents so that a parent may ask a question and receive the specific advice that he needs. Thinking of Victoria, Sears said, “It’s helped me get her to focus on tasks at home, helped her learn to self regulate, and express herself better.” Sears continued, “the program has given me information that I’ve passed onto her,” which is why, Sears plans to return to the program with Victoria in the fall.
Another household that consistently attends Dinner On Us is that of Jessica Dautruche. Dautruche is a part-time graduate student, and full-time member of the professional staff of Curriculum Development and Community Education, at the Center for Women and Community on the UMass Amherst campus.
Dautruche and her son, Jordan, began attending Dinner On Us when he was less than one week old. For the last three years, Dinner On Us has become a regular part of their routine she explained. Dautruche said, “I have friends I talk to during dinner time, and I know that Jordan gets to play with his friends.” The program offers an opportunity for Dautruche to “know he’s doing something productive.” “I’m always trying to do my best for him, and it’s helpful to know he’s there and safe,” she stated.
The diversity of topics keeps Dautruche interested and engaged in learning more. She finds the resources offered to be supportive, and sometimes enjoys the social dynamics of the events. However, Dautruche feels that after 15 years of operation, the program may be improved. She explained, “Dinner On Us could be adapted to be multiple days, instead of just Monday nights.” Or, she suggested, “What if you could choose to go do your homework, or listen to an intensive workshop.” More simply she said, “we have the same food every time, it’s nice because it’s consistent, but it’d be nice to explore different international foods too.”Overall however, Dautruche plans to continue attending Dinner On Us with Jordan. She will also keep spreading the word about the program, which has helped support her over the last few years.
When asked what will become of Dinner On Us in the future, Levenson replied, “I have no idea.” She hopes to move to a new facility, to accommodate more families and broaden the experience the program offers, but in reality, she just plans to continue to take the lead in teaching active parenting in the Amherst area.