One thing I hear a lot from parents in Merced is how isolated and alone many of them feel.
Isolation certainly isn't a unique experience for parents, especially first-time parents who don't yet have a peer support system or who don't access places where other parents gather -- schools or churches, for example.
But it is surprising to hear so many parents complain about isolation in a city this size.
That's one of the reasons why a couple of friends, and I started a support group in 2009 called the Parent Resource Association of Merced -- PRAM, for short. PRAM is a loose and unstructured collaborative of parents who are looking for ways to get together and to share information about raising healthy, happy kids in Merced.
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We originally housed the group in an aging building on Main Street, in the back of The Frog Shop, a children's consignment boutique that we opened around the same time we started our collaborative.
PRAM bounced around the building: it was set up in the back of the store, in a cramped upstairs office, and finally settled in its current location at 621 Main Street.
When PRAM first started, we tried all sorts of things to reach out to parents -- classes, special events, community baby showers, a newsletter. Nothing took off, until we quit trying to organize, and simply let parents come and hang out.
That's when parents began sharing their stories and started trading resources, business cards and fliers. Ultimately, PRAM became a message board where parents could communicate with one another, and a children's room where they could bring their little ones to play while moms socialized.
One of my motivations for starting PRAM was to end that feeling of isolation I'd had since I moved to Merced. You know, it's hard to be lonely in a house full of kids, but that happens to parents.
If you have kids, you know how it goes. You spend your time dragging the kids to Boy Scouts, sports practices and dance classes. You pack your minivans with your kids and their friends, but have little time to make friends of your own.
In the years I have been raising kids in Merced, I have seen a lot of changes that should help to end the isolation parents feel here. Downtown recently has witnessed a number of community- and family-friendly events pop up.
I have seen hundreds of families flock to festivals and parades on Main Street. For families looking for something safe and family-oriented to do with the kids, these events are a worthwhile resource.
But for parents wanting to know where to find a good day-care center, a cheap art class, a private tutor or one of the free parenting classes offered by local agencies, our options are limited.
A case in point: A friend of mine spent months looking for a way to socialize her 2-year-old. She couldn't afford to send her toddler to preschool, but through PRAM she found other moms with kids about the same age as her son and started impromptu play groups.
As her son made friends, she found herself making friends as well. PRAM helped her break the isolation.
Over the past year-and-a-half, the parents at PRAM have started classes, sold handmade items to one another, exchanged birthing and diapering resources and directed some families who were down on their luck to social services. Last Christmas, PRAM co-sponsored a free "picture with Santa" event that gave presents and a decorated Christmas tree to participating families.
In the next year, the parents at PRAM have plans to start parent-organized, age-appropriate play groups and mom-and-dad self-defense classes.
Ultimately, PRAM is what parents need, and what they make of it. As long as there is a place for parents to get together, there's no reason to feel isolated. Parents of Merced: We are not alone.
Heidi Britt is a grant writer and co-founder of Parent Resource Association of Merced (PRAM). Six kids and counting call her variations of the word Mom.