Looking back on a difficult phase of parenting her middle son, Xiaohong Li of Naperville now says her approach was all wrong.
When he was angry and she didn't know why, she thought "What's wrong with him?" or "What's wrong with me?"
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When she didn't know how to handle his anger in a certain situation, she'd feel frustrated, defeated.
Turns out she should have been thinking about what her son was going through developmentally and seeking to understand -- not solve or abruptly end -- his displays of anger, says Li, now a volunteer parent mentor with Naperville-based Project HELP.
The charity is one of several nonprofits heavily supported by the Naperville Exchange Club's Ribfest, which recently wrapped up its 26th year of raising funds for efforts to end child abuse and domestic violence.
Project HELP runs a parent mentoring program and parent education classes that teach people like Li how to find internal or external resources to maintain a safe and healthy environment for their children, even during stressful situations like job loss or divorce, said Regina Rogers, executive director.
"For us as Project HELP, the safe and healthy development of a child is our top priority," Rogers said. "We're building and strengthening families so it lessens the chance of them abusing their kids."
Li says she gained a new parenting approach, grew in stress management skills and even found a way to give back, all starting the moment she first contacted Project HELP in 2007.
"I felt like a defeated mother at that time, so I needed help," she said. "The home visitation gives you a great sense of being supported."
Li participated in a yearlong parent mentoring program, one of two offered by Project HELP, which works with parents to create a "Healthy Environment for Little People." She received weekly visits from someone who had been there -- a parent-volunteer willing to listen to issues Li was having with her then 8-year-old son, share advice and give her mental tools to be a more effective parent.
"By being relaxed with the (mentor's) support, I could think about what's going on with my son's growing process," Li said. "It's a deeper understanding of human development and a deeper understanding, when the situations come up, of how to communicate instead of placing blame."
Li took the lessons she learned from her mentor a few steps further, beginning to volunteer with Project HELP in 2010 and taking a class to become a life coach a year later. She now has been a mentor for three families, including one led by a single mother, and wants to assist multicultural families in the future.
Rogers said Project HELP mentors about 20 families in a year, and most of them are referred through counselors or social service personnel in Naperville Unit District 203, Indian Prairie Unit District 204 or Evangelical Child and Family Agency of Wheaton.
"The families who reach out to us are those who want to improve their parenting skills," Rogers said, adding families never are required to follow a referral to Project HELP. "Those are the ones who make great changes."
The organization was founded in 1992 by the Naperville Exchange Club and has continued to receive the club's support since then, Rogers said. Now, about 75 percent of Project HELP's budget comes from money raised at Ribfest each Fourth of July weekend and doled out during a banquet each March.
Rogers declined to specify Project HELP's total budget but said Ribfest funding from the Exchange Club helps fund volunteer training, counseling for families who need mental health assistance, rent for the office at 1815 W. Diehl Road and other programming, operational and personnel costs.
Project HELP has about 15 volunteers and recently hired a full-time family support specialist, but Rogers said more assistance is always welcome. Empathetic people who want to help parents address life issues through a one-on-one mentoring relationship are encouraged to visit projecthelpdupage.org or call (630) 357-5683 to learn about volunteering opportunities.
Being a mother or father is not necessary, as Rogers, who got her start as a Project HELP volunteer in 2006, is not a parent herself.
"Whether we're parents or not, we've all been parented," Rogers said. "And some of us are just passionate about families and helping raise healthy children."