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Sponsor on board, donations sought to keep playgroup running



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THE YOUNGSTERS taking part in the Little Pesaukees’ Nov. 19 playgroup session take time out for a snack break. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
November 23, 2009
ALTON — With a new sponsor behind them in the form of Alton's Parks and Recreation Department, the leaders of the Little Pesaukees playgroup are reaching out to the community for help keeping the program running.

Laura Macstravic, the group's main facilitator, announced last week that the Recreation Commission had voted to take on the cost of liability insurance for the program, handle advertising, provide a home for it at the Alton Bay Community Center, and create a new line in the town's Parks and Recreation budget for donated funds.

The commission's decision, she said, came as "very good news" for the playgroup, whose original sponsor, Lakes Region Community Services, was forced to cut funding for it in September.

In exchange for the Recreation Department's sponsorship, she explained, she and co-facilitator Pam Mott were asked to raise a full year's worth of operational expenses (roughly $4,000) through private donations.

Although donations will always be welcome, she said, that initial $4,000 would help provide a "cushion" for the program.

Macstravic, who first joined the playgroup shortly after it started in March of 2004, outlined the benefits it has provided for her and her two children in a recently letter to the Recreation Commission.

As someone who was new to Alton when she and her son joined Little Pesaukees, and who had no friends or family in the area, Macstravic wrote in the letter that she found a welcoming environment at the playgroup.

Describing the socialization opportunities the group gave her developmentally disabled son (now a thriving fifth grader) as "invaluable," Macstravic said the other parents in the group helped her through a difficult time, and that his diagnosis would have been delayed without their input.

Her daughter, Aislinn, has also reaped the benefits of the program, she said, explaining that Aislinn has made lasting friendships with many of her playmates and already knew most of the children in her Kindergarten class — a fact that Macstravic said helped ease her fears about entering school.

While the easiest thing for her to do when the group lost its funding in September would have been to simply close the doors, she said, "I didn't want to take the easy way out … not after all the group has given me over the years."

Explaining that the program currently serves an average of seven families at each of its sessions (held on Tuesday and Thursday mornings), and that a total of 50 families have participated within the past year alone, Macstravic commented that the amount of funding needed to keep it going is "really not a lot" in view of the benefits it provides, which she felt "greatly outweigh the costs."

"It's more than just showing up and playing with toys," she added, noting that a number of parents who have taken part in the program have gone to become active volunteers within the local community.

One of those who parlayed their experiences at the playgroup into a community service career is Mott, who joined the group at around the same time as Macstravic.

As a stay-at-home mother with a two-year-old and a newborn who had worked full-time prior to having children, and therefore had no connections within the community, Mott explained in a letter to the Recreation Commission that the playgroup offered her the support she needed to overcome her feelings of isolation and empower herself through the connections she made with other parents.

"Six years later, I am earning a Master's degree in Community Mental Health, and I am teaching parenting classes," she wrote. "I have a strong presence in my community, and I know the parents and the children that are in the schools.

"Had I not had play group, things may have been different," she added.

During an interview with Macstravic at the Nov. 19 playgroup session, Mott said she had learned through her studies that feelings of isolation and a lack of social connections are among the key factors that tend to contribute to child abuse and neglect.

Other "high-risk" factors, she said, include poor family relationships; poverty; lack of access to medical care or social services; inaccurate knowledge of child development; lack of parental confidence; inability to advocate for family needs; a history of childhood abuse on the part of the parent; low educational levels; substance abuse; unemployment; and chronic illnesses, temperament issues, or behavior problems on the part of the child.

The playgroup, she said, provides many of the key protective factors that have been shown to lower the incidence of child abuse and neglect among parents — a nurturing environment; knowledge of parenting and/or child youth and development; and a network of supportive adults outside the family circle to serve as mentors and role models.

The program, she added, offers parents and children and enriching and nurturing environment that benefits both them and the community as a whole.

"We have a child-centered approach," Macstravic said, explaining that playgroup sessions are "loosely structured," with time set aside during each session for arts and crafts and snacks, as well as playtime.

Those seeking further information about the program, or who wish to donate, are welcome to e-mail her at littlepesaukees@gmail.com, she said, adding that the playgroup can also be found online at www.littlepesaukees.org or through its Facebook page.

The town of Alton, she added, has offered to send letters to residents who donate verifying that the donations are tax-deductible.

Local business owners who donate to the program, she said, are welcome to send along a business card, which will be displayed at the Alton Bay Community Center.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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