Longtime children’s advocate steps back
MIDDLEBURY — Addison County Parent-Child Center Co-founder Cheryl Mitchell can tell you scads of stories to explain Natalie Peters’s devotion to the center and its young clients.
But one story stands out.
“When the Parent-Child Center ran out of space and needed to build, Natalie said, ‘I’ll go back to school and become an architect so I can help,’” Mitchell recalled.
It wasn’t idle chatter. She did it, and helped design an expansion project for the center’s Monroe Street headquarters that’s allowed the center to influence the lives of hundreds of young parents and children during the past 42 years.
“Natalie has been an inspiration, mentor, nudge, goal setter, and hard worker for generations of Addison County people and organizations,” Mitchell said. “Just when you think something can’t be done, Natalie does it.”
Peters, 90, has proudly served on the local nonprofit’s board of directors since its inception, but she’s now ready to cede her spot to someone a bit younger. She departs having left her fingerprints on an organization that has become a national model for compassionately instilling parenting skills in young moms who begin their journey into adulthood with a lot of fear and virtually no resources.
“We were just doing something local that had to be taken care of,” Peters said modestly last Friday during an interview.
“It’s been very rewarding, and I’m so proud of the staff,” she added. “They’ve done a wonderful job.”
Indeed, thousands of young Addison County parents and children owe a debt of gratitude to Peters, Mitchell, Sue Harding and a handful of other visionaries who decided, during the late 1970s, that this region needed a special place for pregnant teens to receive compassion, counseling, job training and a nurturing environment in which to incubate their blossoming families.
As a parent herself, Peters was on the board of the Mary Johnson Children’s Center — of which Mitchell was co-director. Mary Johnson was providing care to children age three and older, but Mitchell could see a void in services for infants and young parents.
The Visiting Nurses Association in Burlington had recently started a daycare service for children ages birth to 3 years, so Mitchell decided to check out the new offering, Peters said.
“She came back shaking her head — it was so expensive, because you had to have, by regulation, an adult for every two babies,” Peters recalled of Mitchell’s findings.
“How can we possibly do this?”
At the same time, Naomi Tannen of the Counseling Service of Addison County was shining a light on the plight of pregnant teens, some of whom she was mentoring. In what was fortuitous timing, the federal government during the late ’70s was offering grant money targeting teen pregnancy. Peters recalled that she, Mitchell and Tannen became excited about the prospect of receiving one of the grants to create a new center that could provide infant care and instill parenting skills in pregnant moms.
“Parenting is so important,” said Peters — who with her late husband, the beloved pediatrician “Dr. Pete” Peters — was just beginning to navigate child-rearing herself. So the Peters were dealing firsthand with some of the same challenges all young moms face.
But rather than simply have an educator show young parents the ropes, founders of the Addison County Parent-Child Center, or ACPCC, wanted to give their “students” on-the-job training. They wanted them to learn early on what it was like to change diapers, put together meals, appease a crying child and feel fine about asking for help.
“I said I thought it was important we have some element of teaching and the ability for parents to be involved — because they learn,” Peters said.
The local group applied for — and won — a substantial federal grant in 1979 to get the parent-child center rolling. Just a year later, the center moved into its first home: rented space behind the Middlebury United Methodist Church off North Pleasant Street. Mitchell and Harding became the ACPCC’s first co-directors and assembled a great staff, with several employees — including Howard Russell and current Executive Director Donna Bailey — staying with the nonprofit for decades.
“That’s the thing about that staff; they had experience, but they also learned on the job,” Peters said.
A big part of the job was dispensing generational knowledge.
“I can remember going to a staff meeting (and hearing), ‘You know what? These girls need mothering; all they need is a family and mothering,’” Peters said. “And they were right.”
During its first year of operation, the ACPCC served 70 families by offering childcare and parent education. Today, the center serves almost 2,000 Addison County residents annually by providing childcare, parent education, play groups, job training, academic education, social services and assistance in moving from welfare to work.
“We thought that if we were going to have this kind of childcare for our community, it needed to be top-notch,” Peters said.
The ACPCC has earned a reputation as an innovator in assisting teen parents and their kids, so much so that its administrators are constantly being asked to share the organization’s success story with others hoping to replicate it. With that in mind, the Parent-Child Center outlined its blueprint in a 2018 book, titled “I’m Home!! A Manual for Providing Therapeutic Child Care.”
Some of the ACPC’s biggest fans include U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders — who recently donated a portion of the money earned from the sales of his inaugural-mitten-meme merchandise to the center — and former Gov. Howard Dean, who recruited Mitchell to serve as his deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services for 10 years.
Natalie Peters has joyfully witnessed it all as she and her ACPCC colleagues have helped guide the organization from a newborn baby to a mature, healthy pillar of the community.
It hasn’t been easy. Some ACPCC clients enter the program with heartrending backgrounds. In some cases, histories of abuse — emotional, physical and/or sexual.
“I told (the staff) at one point, ‘I could never do your work; I would be in tears all day long,’” Peters recounted. “I could be a board member and help make the place happen because it’s at a distance. But if I had to work every day as they do with these parents and kids … I don’t have it. I admire them so much, for being able to be as effective as they are.”
She gives all the credit to past and present ACPCC staff. They instill a sense of self-worth in the young clients as they travel the road toward self-sufficiency.
“They feel like they’re nothing when they come there, and by the way they handle them and talk to them and the respect they show them, they develop self-esteem,” Peters said. “When you’re treated like a real person, with courtesy day after day, it takes.”
It’s a philosophy that Peters also espouses in life and in public service. Both her mother and father volunteered for local causes, so community service came naturally for her. Her contributions to Middlebury have included stints on the Mary Hogan Elementary School board, the Ilsley Library board, the UD-3 school board, the town Design Advisory Board, and the planning commission. She established a Girl Scout troop in Bristol more than 40 years ago.
“I felt a need to help the community, but it was also fun,” she said. “(My husband) worked with kids one way, and I worked with them in a different way.”
While she’s loved her time on the ACPCC board, Peters said health issues are forcing her to step away from volunteering. At 90, her mental faculties remain spot-on, but she’s become hard of hearing. She suffered a stroke earlier this year that’s affected her mobility.
Parent-Child Center officials refuse to let her make a complete break with the organization. So she’ll proudly sport the ceremonial title of “board member emeritus.”
“I’m still doing it because I believe in the place and believe it still needs to be supported,” Peters said. “It’s been kind that they’ve put up with me for all this time.”
Mitchell believes the good that Peters has done will last for generations.
“If you look at almost any educational, health care, or social service organization in town, you are likely to see Natalie’s fingerprints,” she said. “The stunning thing is, she is so low-key you almost don’t notice all she is doing. You simply enjoy how much fun she is to be around and you bask in the warmth of her brilliance.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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