Throughout 2022, our Marketing Communications Leader is connecting with parents of young children at our partner organizations to lift up the insights of these hard-working parents and the work of our amazing partners.
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- Name: Rachael Burrello
- Location: Guilford County
- When she became a parent: 2018
- What issues Rachael is focused on: home visiting and parenting education
- Organizations she’s involved in: Smart Start
- When Rachael got started in early childhood work: Her career in early childhood started in 2015 with Ready for School, Ready for Life in Guilford County, in a system building role on the county level to build a countywide comprehensive early childhood system. She was working with all kinds of direct services and adjacent service providers, state leads, etc. to help build more comprehensive supports for families and young children in the county.
- Who she parents: Four year old son.
In July 2021, it was announced that Rachael Burrello would be the new director of the NC Home Visiting and Parent Education System, hosted by the NC Partnership for Children. Looking into November, which happens to be Family Engagement Month, we’re talking to her about lessons learned as a parent of a young child and leader in the systems for home visiting and parent education.
11 QUESTIONS WITH RACHAEL BURRELLO:
- Lindsay: Thinking about both your identity as a parent of a young child and a professional dedicated to empowering parents on a daily basis, what’s on your mind about meeting the everyday challenges and basic needs for parents?
Rachael: The “challenges and needs” question is so frustratingly complex. Equity, especially and particularly racial equity, is such a huge and crucial part, and it’s something we have to name, and discuss, and connect around, and act on. We know the disparities in deadly outcomes for folks giving birth who identify as Black and/or African-American, and their infants, are huge, and are horrible. We know that’s not where disparities begin, and we know that’s not where they end. We also know that the struggles of difficult pregnancies, birthing complications, postpartum physical and mental health struggles, developmental issues, and just sleepless nights, feeling lost and alone and clueless, struggling to feel adequate as a caregiver—that can happen regardless of your identity or circumstances.
So how do we meet that? I think it’s definitely not an “either-or” thing, where we only focus all our resources in one place. I love seeing strategies in different places, at many levels, around making sure we make some kind of touch available to everyone, that we can check in with everyone, and then match them with exactly what will meet their needs, with the right fit. “Targeted universalism” is a common term I’ve seen used for this, and I think that assurance of the good match, taking the family’s needs and context and culture and desires and goals into account, is a really powerful idea.
- Lindsay: As an advocate, what issues, policies and/or programs are you passionate about and what spurred that interest?
Rachael: Proposed reauthorization of federal Maternal, Infant & Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) funding. Partners at Prevent Child Abuse NC (PCANC) have done a lot of great advocacy and education work around this, and there is still time to get the word out about these critical supports for home visiting programs. Organizations like PCANC and the National Home Visiting Coalition do a great job of providing tools to make it easier to tell folks about these supports that matter so much to us and the families and children in our communities.
North Carolina Partnership for Children (NCPC) is one of the biggest funders of HVPE, and has received an increased allocation of state funds with greater flexibility on how some of those dollars can be spent. That means that there may be more options for funding of supports like home visiting and parent education (HVPE) across the state. NCPC has committed to expanding its catalog of evidence-based/evidence-informed programs and models that the 75 Smart Start Local Partnerships serving all 100 counties can choose to support with state dollars. There’s a big focus on adding HVPE offerings, and it’s great to see that support.
- Lindsay: Who do you look up to for the things you work on?
Rachael: Experienced leaders in all different areas of this field. Because I have the privilege of being in systems work, I get to work with such a rich variety of folks who are involved with, attached to, embedded in, and dedicated to, home visiting and parenting education. And it’s such a fascinating time to have come into a career in early childhood, in general. There are people who have been at this work for decades, pursuing and making change, and we’re standing on the shoulders of those giants, and often continuing to work alongside them and benefit from their expertise, experience, and wisdom. I really look up to them.
Folks entering with fresh eyes, and open minds. There are lots of people coming in new, regardless of age, just new to maybe the profession, or the area of study, or the ideas, who are showing such openness, and eagerness to learn, and interest, and there’s such a level of passion and drive, and a sense not just of possibility, but feasibility, that’s very inspiring.
Family Leaders. Something that’s becoming more and more common, is really strong family engagement. So, maybe going beyond asking families how they feel about something that’s been implemented, and bringing them into the design process at the beginning. Moving beyond that and supporting them to lead the design process, or join the board of directors and choose what to design next. In that context, I’ve had the privilege to work with a number of families, and I’ve had the privilege to work with families in other roles in the system, such as advocacy roles, and every time, it’s been an amazing experience. These folks are remarkable, truly. And there are lots more like them out there!
- Lindsay: What gives you hope as a parent?
Rachael: On a micro level: resilience trumps adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). We know that ACEs can have lifelong negative effects. But we also know that nurturing, loving relationships with adults—even one supportive adult—can build resilience that helps to heal from ACEs, and “bounce back” from future difficulties. That’s one reason why I think parenting education—some delivered through home visiting—and other early childhood work, is so important. It enhances those relationships, and helps strengthen skills to deliver that nurturing and show that love that we feel. And it helps caregivers build their own resilience, too, because raising kids is not easy! Kids don’t come with a manual, and even if they did, every kid is different. But I know for me, and I think I can safely say for caregivers in general, one of my main drivers is to protect my kid. And knowing that showing love, just as one person, can help him learn to get back to “okay” when life throws him for a loop, is a weight off.
On a macro level: folks keep showing up. Systemically, these issues are huge. That’s reality. It’s taken hundreds of years to get where we are, and we’re not going to flip it overnight. We’re not going to flip it in ten years. But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless and will never happen. And folks keep showing up. They keep coming to meetings, and asking really good questions, and pushing for change, and holding me, and each other, and themselves accountable. And outside of the HVPE System meetings, people are showing up to conversations at many other tables and rooms, virtual and physical, to keep the work moving forward, to keep driving change for children and families. I feel like there’s a lot of energy and momentum for early childhood.
- Lindsay: What are your biggest challenges or worries as a parent of a child in early childhood?
Rachael: My son was around 18 months old when the pandemic hit, so he’s lived most of his life, like so many kids his age, in isolation with his parents. We’ve tried really, really hard, like other parents, but we are tired, and we are stressed, and to a toddler, we do not share enough of the same interests to be sufficiently engaging and enriching all the time.
I’m so glad he’s in a good early childhood education setting now, and spending time with same-age peers under the great guidance of caring and nurturing and qualified adults with good training and expertise and experience. I know he’s got nurturing and support at home that’s going to help him grow his resilience. But I just really wonder about what additional support he’s going to need as he continues to grow, and enter a school setting, and go forward. And I think a lot of parents and other caregivers are wondering and worrying about that.
- Lindsay: What are you reading, listening to, or watching that helps you feel empowered while navigating early childhood?
Rachael: Honestly, I’ve gotten to the point where I have a lot of trouble taking in media now! I feel so weird saying that, but between email, and Zoom, and text messaging, and all the noise out in the world, and a four-year-old who is just SO excited to talk to me, I live in a constant state of overstimulation. But I find myself really listening more deeply to the people I connect with, in person and virtually, and I feel very fortunate that so many of them are early childhood professionals, or parents, or both!
When you do have worries and doubts and struggles, it’s one thing for someone to say, “Oh, it’s going to be okay;” don’t get me wrong, that’s nice to hear. But to hear it from someone who’s been there, and felt it, and come out the other side, it’s different. And it’s great to have access to that combination of head, hand, and heart knowledge, of people who have raised children, gotten the education, and worked in the profession as well. I know I feel so much better after just a two-minute “how are you” chat with a parenting education expert about something squirrelly my kid did last week, before a meeting starts. If they can do that in two minutes, my gosh, a home visit or group session or individual session has got to be amazing! I want every family in North Carolina to have that.
- Lindsay: What a few years we’ve just survived and here we are hitting another turning point! What do you see is needed to restore families of young children to feeling a sense of stability and balance?
Rachael: Honestly, one of the things that has served me best in gaining a sense of stability and balance is access to good services to support social-emotional and mental health. Learning skills to support resilience and healing in those areas has been so beneficial, as an adult, and it’s multiplied when we can learn it as children. When we can learn these things as a family, adults and children together, how powerful is that?
Resilience is not just, “Oh, I can get through this, I can survive, I can put one foot in front of the other tomorrow.” That’s important, I don’t want to underplay that in any way. I’ve had to do that so many times. But I’ve come to a place in my life where I’ve honestly gone through some really hard things one after another after another lately, some once-in-a-lifetime challenges all in a row, and realized that through all of that, I always had a sense of optimism that things would get better eventually. That’s pretty new for me, honestly, and pretty radical, I think. And I feel like that’s a core component of resilience, maybe, that inner sense of balance, that things may be bad right now, but I’m okay, or I will be, and I’ll get better. I’ll heal. I’ll be happy, and find beauty, and feel strong and give of myself because I feel fulfilled again.
- Lindsay: Educating parents and reaching every family could sound like a daunting task. How do you stay motivated to keep feeling and doing your best and keep your focus on what your goals are?
Rachael: When I was working at Ready for School, Ready for Life, before I became a parent, people would introduce themselves and say, “I have three kids,” or, “I have one child;” I would say, “I have 37,500 kids,” because I wanted people to understand that all the kids, every child 0-5 in Guilford County, was ours in some way. Which I know is kind of presumptuous! But these kids matter!
They matter so much, they all matter. And every time I’m out in public, and I see kids my son’s age, or younger, or a little older, the seven- and eight-year-olds, the little-bitty newborns in the strollers and all the ones in between, I just feel like, “YOU! YES, YOU!” Doesn’t matter where I am, kids are everywhere, and it’s a great reminder.
- Lindsay: And then you became a parent of your own child. What shifted in your perspective since becoming a parent?
Rachael: I never realized I had so much capacity for patience before. I don’t think anyone enjoys the experience of having someone else coming at them with big feelings and not understanding how to manage them, or trying to collaborate with someone on a deadline (like getting ready for preschool!) who seems fully intent on every other priority in the world. There’s part of me that wants to ask “Why?” and observe and figure things out before acting.
I think that, because of what I do, and because of the services I’ve received, and the many other services I’ve had the privilege to understand a little about from the model purveyors and implementing agencies and professionals, it’s helped me to understand a little more. It’s not easy, especially when your kid’s throwing a tantrum! But it’s been a good skill-building experience, and it’s helped me connect with my son in a positive way.
- Lindsay: What is something unique about your family?
Rachael: Something that I think is becoming more common, but is still not that common, is that what my husband and I decided a long time ago was right for us was that I’d work on putting a lot of energy into my career, and he’d put a lot of energy into our home and family. He wanted his main focus to be on our son, and I want to be a good and present and supportive parent, of course, AND, I recognize that support is an action that looks a lot of different ways. But my son’s primary caregiver is his dad.
The model that he’s seeing in his life is that caring and nurturing and comforting after getting his shots at the doctor and playing with him at the park, and cooking and teaching him to feed the chickens is just normal dad stuff. And I think things like that are so important, for folks to feel empowered to do the things and take up the roles – and switch off and change and try different roles as desired – that resonate with them. And for kids to see that, and grow to know they can do that, too. And it’s really important that we embrace all of those folks, and all of those roles, into this work, to support kids in knowing that.
- Lindsay: What brings you and your family the most joy?
Rachael: I really love watching my son learn things, and develop new skills, but I think my favorite thing is when he just breaks out something creative and completely off-the-wall that surprises me and makes me laugh. I love “kid logic” so much! The things that just burst out of them that seem like non sequiturs and make you wonder what is going on in their little heads, and make you laugh and laugh. It’s so beautiful.
We’re starting to build up that bank of hilarious stories and special memories of moments that demonstrate so clearly what our son’s personality is, those moments when we go, “Yes, that is who he is, one hundred percent!” And I think all families have that, those times where, “Oh, that is definitely my child,” and, “Oh, that is definitely your child” veers off-course and you see that they are their own person, just so clearly. It’s magical, seeing them for who they are, and watching them become themselves.
The Intersection of Home Visiting and Parent Education with Early Childhood
The NC Early Childhood Foundation and the Home Visiting and Parent Education System goals are very much aligned, with NCECF having been born out of the NC Partnership for Children (NCPC) and NCECF having been involved in the planning and design process for the HVPE system. They continue to align and collaborate through multiple initiatives:
- EarlyWell: Elements of the final program and policy recommendations from NCECF’s EarlyWell Initiative, in its release, From Equity to Issue Campaigns, link to the goals of HVPE. Multiple NCPC staff were deeply engaged in the EarlyWell design process, including leadership of pieces of it. Many Smart Start Local Partnerships have served as implementation sites for family engagement/family voice work as an initial step of the EarlyWell Initiative.
- Family Forward NC: NCPC staff had representation on the Family Forward NC certification committee.
- Pathways to Grade-Level Reading: Recommendations within the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading align strongly with the goals of the HVPE System, equity, family and community voice in decision making, accessible and high-quality services that match the cultural and community context, and cross-sector coordination are all key to success. Shared measures of success within Pathways to Grade-Level Reading include positive parent/child interactions, supports for families, skilled and knowledgeable parents, which are influenced by elements like parent education supports, parental depression, and parental adverse childhood experiences. HVPE works with families to build supports and skills to improve outcomes in these areas.