MISSOULA - Parents, caregivers, and anyone who cares about youth have an opportunity through United Way of Missoula County to use their experience with kids to advocate for positive change.
The Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI) is a national program brought to Missoula in 2021 through United Way’s Zero to Five Initiative.
It is a free, 15-week educational program that aims to teach parents how to navigate education, government and legal systems to make a difference in their community.
PLTI falls under United Way’s Zero to Five, a Montana program with local offices in various counties.
It focuses on providing support for families with kids in the zero to five age range.
“We know that that's a really critical time period for kids and families, and it's a time period where there isn't as much support– there's no K through 12 system,” United Way of Missoula County Director of Operations Gabe Sather-Olson said.
Each county uses Zero to Five in different ways. For Missoula, Zero to Five has three main goals — connecting early childhood systems, keeping data on kindergarten readiness through kindergarten entry tests, and increasing parent leadership.
PLTI is the main program with the goal of increasing parent leadership. It helps parents better support the youth in their lives.
“I think PLTI is a really powerful program because we've got a lot of kids in our community who don't have great advocates or who are not getting the support that they need and deserve,” PLTI site coordinator Sam Duncan said “And PLTI puts caregivers and adults in our community in a position to better advocate for young people.”
The people at United Way knows that parents have a lot of lived experience navigating civic systems with their child.
For example, a parent knows exactly what it is like using food support systems with a kid, or how the education system affects their child.
United Way wants this experience to be seen as expertise.
“Currently, in our country, parent voice isn't always seen as valuable,” Sather-Olson said. “So you can come to a table as an expert for your job, but you wouldn't also bring your expertise as a parent. This is trying to encourage folks at all levels of leadership to recognize that that experience as a parent, that lived experience, is equally valuable.”
Jobyna McCarthy participated last year in PLTI to hear new ideas on how to help her kid who was struggling with mental health issues.
“The past few years I have been navigating the mental health system with my kiddo,” she said. “I have found hurdles and lack of resources and lack of answers and support. And so this was an opportunity to come together with other parents, other parents in my community that maybe had resources, or that knew of this person or that person, or ‘you should try this’ or ‘talk to that individual,’ you know?”
Through PLTI McCarthy was able to learn more information about how some of the systems around mental health work.
She is returning this year as a facilitator for the sessions and will teach parents new skills as an alumnus, "I received so much support and education and ideas that I couldn’t not come back and help the next group of parents."
The curriculum for the course follows national PLTI standards. The classes meet every Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. at the Missoula Public Library.
Participants hear from facilitators, site coordinators, and guest speakers who all teach them democracy skills and civic engagement.
For example, one class may explain school budgets and how administrators allocate money in local districts.
Another day someone from the media might be a guest speaker and talk about how parents can use local news to promote their ideas or stories.
On top of coursework, parents are able to connect with other caregivers in their community to share their own experiences and learn from others.
“So it is systems education and then also personal development through it,” Sather-Olson said.
United Way works to ensure parents of all backgrounds are included in the group. They want to make sure to hear from all experiences in the community.
“It's things like recognizing difference in our community and sort of, that my experience as a parent might be really different from your experience as a parent based on all the sorts of different things that are happening in our lives,” Sather-Olson said.
For Duncan, having diversity in PLTI means parents can learn what a real democracy looks like.
“Our participants are actually learning in this microcosm of democracy because we need to be able to understand across differences and negotiate across differences in the real world to make change happen,” Duncan said.
The course is an anti-racist program meant to show community members how to be advocates for every group in their community.
It teaches about democracy, government and legislation, but Duncan says it’s not meant to be a political group; they bring all political ideologies together.
“The thing that they have in common is they care about kids, most of the other things about them are not the same,” Duncan says.
During the 15 weeks of instruction, Duncan helps the caregivers work on a community impact project.
This can be anything from showing a movie at the Roxy that highlights a struggle experienced by the family, to creating a civic ordinance or testifying in front of legislators.
For McCarthy, her community impact project involved creating a Rolodex of resources for kids struggling with mental health issues.
She created what she was looking for when going through the process with her own teenager.
McCarthy spoke with national policymakers, local providers, school boards and county governments about what support kids need.
She now works with Montana Family to Family to help other parents navigate their systems to find resources.
McCarthy meets with providers to talk about her own experiences and help them better support families and kids with mental health issues.
While learning to be an advocate for her child, McCarthy also learned to be an advocate for herself.
She has a new career thanks to PLTI and is pursuing further education through a graduate program.
More than education and new skills, McCarthy says the support she got from other parents in the group was equally helpful.
“We all are as parents and caregivers, going through a myriad of challenges, trying to raise our kiddos,” she said. “There isn't always right at our fingertips the answers I mean, sure there's the internet, but another parent who has gone through what we have gone through is the best support.”
McCarthy still speaks with her fellow alumni and says they bonded together during the 15 weeks.
“We didn't necessarily know we were coming there for support or community, but we found it. We all found new wonderful friends that we didn't know before we came into that room,” she said. “We now have such a beautiful community of support and resources for each other. “
Duncan, who will be the PLTI site coordinator for the first time, is excited to see the group that comes and to be able to help youth through these adults.
“They're coming in because they see, usually, that something is not working for their family or is not working for the young people in their life, and they see that something needs to change,” Duncan said. “And so they come to PLTI because they want to learn how to make that change.”
Applications for PLTI are due at the end of the day on Friday, March 3 and can be found here. The program starts with a full-day orientation on Saturday, March 11, then classes will start the following Wednesday, March 15.
PLTI works with Missoula Parks and Recreation to provide free childcare during all sessions, as well as a free meal for parents and kids, plus free transportation to and from the library if needed.
Duncan says they want PLTI to be accessible and to make sure anyone who wishes to participate is able.