On a Thursday morning, at the ParentSmart Family Resource Center, parent educator Ana Frey sat on the ground. Mothers of young children sat on couches around her as their children played with large cardboard blocks and anything else they could get their hands on.
The women did what women so often do, talking about their families, their children, their triumphs and struggles as mothers.
But these women come together under Frey’s guidance for a special reason. The Hispanic women all have a child, or children, with “autisma,” the Spanish word for autism.
Frey has dedicated her life to helping these women and their families navigate the complicated world of doctors, therapists, teachers and special circumstances that go hand-in-hand with an autism diagnosis, which one in 68 children face in the United States today.
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For that, and for her effort in other areas of ParentSmart’s programming, Frey has been named one of three national winners of the Parent Educator of the Year award from Parents As Teachers, a national curriculum, standard-setting, professional development and advocacy group utilized by programs like ParentSmart to help parents and their children become the best families they can.
And there is no one more deserving of the award, said Frey’s supervisor, ParentSmart coordinator Cindy Hunt, who nominated Frey for the award. ParentSmart is part of the Rock Hill School District.
“She doesn’t meet a stranger,” Hunt say of Frey, who she described as kind, patient, dedicated and an excellent listener.
Frey started at ParentSmart in 2008, Hunt said. Originally from Ecuador, Frey’s work with Spanish-speaking families in the community quickly revealed to her that there was a need among parents of students with special needs. Families couldn’t figure out how to navigate the often-complicated and confusing world of therapies, individualized education plans and other services and often didn’t have insurance.
In the Hispanic and Latino community, there’s also an added stigma attached to learning disabilities that parents have to overcome.
So Frey stepped in.
“She has added so much to our program,” Hunt said.
But Frey said it hasn’t always been easy to help the families who needed it.
“In the beginning, I was so grumpy because we couldn’t find anything (to help them),” she said. “We had to do something.”
Twice a month now, Frey’s families gather to talk about their children and their lives. Their group is called Tu Mundo es mi Mundo, or Your World is my World. Frey lets them educate each other about new things they’ve learned about autism symptoms or treatments.
She also models different activities or behaviors parents can try with their children. While there is no cure, she said, we can help the children succeed.
“We try to let them understand that if the parent can work with the child more than the therapist, more than the doctor, the symptoms can go away,” Frey said.
Frey also helps families find doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and people within the Rock Hill School District who can help in accessing services.
She talks about the children in those families with as much pride as though they were her own. One particular student, Emily, recently was the only student in her fourth grade class to score 100 percent on a test about Native American culture.
“I cried a bit, I did, because her mother was so happy and I was so happy,” Frey said.
Before this group and before Frey, Rock Hill resident Paola Lozano said she was living “in limbo” over her son, Abraham’s, autism diagnosis. She had just moved to Rock Hill and had no idea what she could do to help Abraham, who will turn four this month.
Now, she said, they feel like they are in control of Abraham’s treatments and therapies and he’s doing better.
“I’m very grateful for (Frey),” Lozano said. “I can call her in the middle of the night and she will answer.”
Frey is very humble about the impact she’s had on the families at ParentSmart and the Family Resource Center. When asked about her success as a parent educator, she defers the compliment to her colleagues and says she learns from them every day. She also said credit for the success of Tu Mundo es mi Mundo should go to the families in the group, not to her.
“They are the program,” Frey said. “Without them, my job is nothing.”
Frey and Hunt will fly to St. Louis later this month for Frey to accept her award and to participate in a conference on parent education.