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Published: Sunday, 4/24/2005

A friend to parents for 25 years

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Diane Lepsig, left, a Parents Helping Parents support group facilitator, talks with executive director Barbara Laraway. Diane Lepsig, left, a Parents Helping Parents support group facilitator, talks with executive director Barbara Laraway.
SIMMONS / BLADE Enlarge

Barbara Laraway, mother of three, prepares to celebrate a milestone this week for what could be considered her fourth child: Parents Helping Parents.

Born of her experience with a troubled son, the support group she founded and leads is turning 25. The agency - which has provided consolation and advice to more than 10,000 people - will mark its anniversary with a gourmet dinner next Sunday in the Toledo Zoo Pavilion.

"She's committed to parents who are experiencing what she has gone through and she has a profound desire to help them," Lucas County Juvenile Court Judge James Ray said of Ms. Laraway.

The organization is a way for parents to get help before their child is in such deep trouble that the court is involved, he said, and to break through the sense of isolation that can envelop families in crisis.

"So many parents think they're the only ones in the world that are going through these terrible times," Judge Ray observed. "With support, encouragement, and perhaps some skills development, parents can get through it and so can their kids."

They are parents like Chris Pool of Sylvania Township, who has attended weekly meetings of a Parents Helping Parents group in West Toledo for two years. She said she and her husband have found comfort, strength, and new strategies for parenting there.

"We both have learned a lot. It's to the point now that my son says, 'I just don't know what you guys are going to do next.'"

They also found a friend in Ms. Laraway. "Barb has been a godsend. She is always there. She has gone to court with us when we needed support."

Ms. Laraway, 63, is thinking of parents like the Pools when she says "it's fun to watch them grow."

The native of Warren, Ohio, has come a long way herself.

"If anyone would have told me back years ago this is what I'd be doing, I would have said, 'no way.' I remember in school I hated to get up in front of class and do my report. I was just not comfortable, and now I just - I guess what I want is to get help for parents, because there are so few places.

"We have to find a way to change things so parents are being heard and our kids are getting help. For some of our families, life is so out of control."

When her son got in trouble, she said, "I knew as a family we were in trouble."

Ms. Laraway said the problems started when he was 11, shortly after she and her husband divorced. At 14, he ended up in legal trouble.

She was scared for her son - whose name she prefers not to disclose - but not intimidated by a system that isn't always sympathetic or supportive.

"Parents are blamed a lot of times," Ms. Laraway said. The implied message is that, "If you would have done a better job, your kid wouldn't be here."

Ms. Laraway, who describes herself as "a doer," went downtown and started asking questions. Her journey through the system with her son brought her into contact with people who became her allies and admirers.

Gary Tester, now director of the Ohio Department of Drug & Alcohol Addiction Services, said he first met Ms. Laraway in 1982, when he worked for the Lucas County juvenile probation department. "There were times when Barbara's outspokenness was not very helpful," he said. He sometimes wished she would keep quiet, yet "she always spoke out," and he said he grew to appreciate her determination and ability to get things done.

"I consider her a dear friend and someone whose passion for parents and children cannot be questioned," he said.

Mr. Tester credits Parents Helping Parents with playing a pivotal role in the establishment of local drug and alcohol treatment programs for adolescents in the 1980s, and for working with police to help them understand how addicted and unruly children rock a family, and how to support those parents.

"On the treatment side, they were truly the consumer advocates of the day. No one else was playing that role," Mr. Tester said.

At the same time Ms. Laraway was growing as an advocate for parents, Juvenile Court Judge Andy Devine, now retired from the bench, was becoming alarmed by the jump in adolescent drug and alcohol cases. He called together counselors, school administrators, mental health professionals, and others to look for solutions.

He and Ms. Laraway were natural partners.

"Parents are the greatest untapped resource we have in our community," Judge Devine declared. "We spend so much money focusing on the individual child. If you really want to help that child, you have to help those parents."

Ms. Laraway "was the one who saw the value of a parent organization," he said. "I liked the idea so much I got behind it and found some money."

That came about a year after the group started on a small scale in June, 1980, as Tough Love, a program advocating strict rules and consequences for unruly children. At first, fewer than two dozen people attended meetings regularly.

"The Blade did an article on us the Sunday between Christmas and New Year's, and then the next Wednesday we had over 200 parents who attended," she recalled. "People just kept coming and coming and coming."

Success began to weigh heavily. Ms. Laraway was working full time in office equipment sales and training, single-parenting her children, and still tending to the special needs of her son in addition to leading group meetings. She told Judge Devine she couldn't do it all.

"So he asked me, 'if I get you some funding, would you like to do this full time?' I said OK."

With funds from the court, local donors, and the United Way, the group became a two-year pilot project in July, 1981. That's when the name was changed to Parents Helping Parents. "That's what we were doing," Ms. Laraway said. "That name fit us a whole lot better."

She said the organization earned full United Way status in 1983. This year, its budget is $200,855, primarily from United Way and Lucas County Juvenile Court. Ms. Laraway, who is paid $45,936 as executive director, and her staff of two are based in the Lucas County Educational Service Center in Waterville. Support group meetings are held there and other sites in Toledo, Oregon, Bowling Green, and Findlay.

Parents come looking for answers: What do I do now? Tell me what to do, she said. "Oftentimes I say we don't have a magic wand, but these are the things that we do. We cannot make your child change. We as parents have to change the way we react and respond to our kids. We have to become more consistent, we have to follow through, we have to make some tough decisions. We have to make our kids accountable for their actions.

"I think they've tried to do those things, but I think the problems with some of our kids are beyond what parents know how to handle," she said.

Despite a quarter-century of her efforts, the problems facing such parents aren't going away or getting any easier to solve.

"I get frustrated," admitted Ms. Laraway, whose family now includes five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren as well as her three grown children - all of whom are doing well.

Hoping to retire in two years, Ms. Laraway's thoughts also turn these days to making sure Parents Helping Parents continues without her.

She'll be a tough act to follow.

"Barbara Laraway has been a real blessing to our community," said Judge Devine. "I can't believe how she has hung in there over the years."

Parents Helping Parents' 25th anniversary celebration on May 1 includes hors d'oeuvres and a silent auction at 4 p.m. and gourmet dinner at 5:30 p.m. at the Toledo Zoo Pavilion. Tickets are $50 each. Information: 419-878-7802.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.comor 419-724-6126.



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