June Schwank Montanari remembers the Back to School night when she asked Hopewell Valley Regional School District superintendent Tom Smith a few questions about sex education in the district.
“I had seen an announcement of a program for the parents and students in the high school for this Teen PEP program—basically part of the sex-ed curriculum—and I was asking him, ‘What is this?’ Because I just didn’t know,” she said.
In the course of their discussion, Smith told Montanari that a parenting conference was in the planning stages and that the organizers of the conference—the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance in conjunction with the school district and the Hopewell Valley Education Foundation—could use some support from people like Montanari who want to make sure parents of the Hopewell Valley are well informed about what is going with kids these days. Montanari was interested enough to join the committee for the first ever Hopewell Valley Parenting Conference, which is scheduled to take place Saturday, Jan. 28 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Central High School.
The conference, in planning for more than a year, has been set up to offer Hopewell Valley parents unprecedented access to area professionals who are experts on the challenges facing today’s kids, whether they are in pre-K or high school. Attendees will have the opportunity to choose from among a wide variety of workshops, addressing issues from sibling rivalry to cyberbullying to drug use to sexuality.
Montanari’s daughter Katie is a sophomore at Central High School, and her son Thomas is an eighth grader at Timberlane Middle School. Watching them grow up, she’s developed a feeling that this generation of teens is different from any that has come before. “They use social media so much,” Montanari said in a recent interview. “Their way of communication, in terms of relationships, is so different. They’re vulnerable in a way if they’re not completely informed. I really want to make sure they have a lot of support.”
The conference is open to all parents of the Hopewell Valley, whether their children attend public schools or not. It will kick off at 8 a.m. with sign-in, refreshments and information tables set up for attendees to browse. At 9 a.m. Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a physician at The Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania and author of books Raising Kids to Thrive and Building Resilience in Children in Teens will begin his keynote speech. Ginsburg is known for his concept of lighthouse parenting, encouraging parents to choose to be beacons to guide their children rather than being helicopter parents who hover over their children’s every move.
The first workshop session is set to begin at 10:45, followed by a second workshop session scheduled to start at noon. All 15 of the workshops will be offered in both sessions so attendees don’t have to choose one topic at the expense of another, with the exception of “Social Networking, Cyberbullying and the Internet,” which will be presented in two parts across both sessions.
The second workshop session will end around 1 p.m., at which point attendees will be welcomed back to the area with information tables and more refreshments. The organizers will be encouraging both guests and presenters to mingle afterward in the parent-to-parent lounge, sharing their thoughts and feelings on flipboards and in conversations.
Most workshops will be led by local educators, counselors and therapists. Timberlane principal Rosetta Treece is set to talk about helping adolescents manage conflicts and relationships. Superintendent Smith and Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance coordinator Heidi Kahme will share with parents the results of the Search Institute survey that was taken by 700 district students in grades 7 through 12 in the fall.
Representatives of HiTOPS, a local sexuality education organization, and Garden State Equality will be on hand to discuss trends in teen sexual health, and Dr. Suneeta Sayyaparaju of Comprehensive Mental Health Services in Pennington will be talking about trends in mental health. There will even be one workshop, “Listening to Our Youth,” that will be presented by leadership students from Central High School.
“The conference is basically connecting parents with information about all different types of topics related to children’s development,” said Montanari, a native of Connecticut who has lived in Hopewell Borough a little over 20 years. “For parents, the more they know, the more they can be close to their children and have those conversations that are really important. Not that kids necessarily want to have them, but at least you’re doing your work as a parent being open to what’s realistically happening to children.”
One of the presenters at the conference will be Sarah Moore, a clinician at Capital Health’s Institute for Neuroscience and Pain Management, who will co-lead the workshop, “Adolescent Substance Abuse: Is it a Rite of Passage?” In her work, Moore interviews many opioid addicts about the reasons they used and became addicted. She says an overwhelming number of heroin addicts were introduced to opioids through legitimately prescribed painkillers. One thing she hopes to be able to convey in the workshop is just how addictive these medications can be.
Moore said she hopes to inform parents about alternatives to opioid painkillers that are out there, and also to educate them about the best ways to communicate to their children the dangers those drugs present.
Also presenting will be Dara Bellace, a Princeton-based licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. She will be giving the workshop, “A Clinician’s Office: What Are They Hearing?” at the conference alongside co-presenting counselors George Scott and Deborah Dumont.
Bellace said she hopes the workshop enables her to shed some light on the often secretive behaviors that underlie eating disorders. “People who binge or purge might be in a healthy weight range,” she said. “People assume that everything’s fine. But there are changes in behaviors, preoccupations, rituals that can be indicative of an eating disorder.”
Sometimes when parents who suspect their children have an issue learn about the issue in a nonjudgmental way, like in a workshop, they are able confront their concerns and begin to get their kids help. “Sometimes, it’s very bright, savvy parents who don’t necessarily know what to look for,” she said.
As coordinator of the municipal alliance, Heidi Kahme has been involved in setting up many individual workshops aimed at helping parents be parents over the years. “We all want what’s best for our kids, but many times we don’t know what to do,” she said.
Through these workshops, the alliance and the school district have gained a lot of insight into what’s on parents’ minds. “Our thinking was, instead of having these stand-alone, one-night come-out-and-learn sessions about some issue, what if we were to bring all the issues together in one location? People could really gain a lot of knowledge in a short amount of time. It was really just a lot of brainstorming and conversations and the light bulb went off.”
Kahme began contacting area counselors and therapists who might be able to address topics and situations that the community has been dealing with. Later, the committee went through the list to ensure that everything that would be presented at the conference rang true. “We want all the workshops to be well attended. Since this is the first year of the conference, we’ll be able to gauge that better afterward.”
The parent-to-parent lounge at the end came about because the committee realized that parents’ minds might be racing after the workshops. “They may think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my child, now what do I do?’” Kahme said, “We thought we needed an area to debrief and let parents think, ‘What does this all mean? I just learned an awful lot today, I’d really like to talk to someone about this.’”
Online pre-registration ends on Friday, Jan. 20. Fees are $15 per person and attendees will be asked to select the workshops they want to attend when registering, so that organizers can ensure that no session gets overcrowded. Walk-up registration will be offered on the day of the event, but there will be no guarantee that all workshops will be available at that time.
Child-care services will also be offered at nearby Village Learning Center (15 Yard Road, Pennington) at a cost of $25 for the first child and $10 per additional child. Pizza lunch is included.
Kahme said she and the committee have been grateful for the guidance of the school district and the Hopewell Valley Education Foundation throughout the planning of the conference. “It really has been a true partnership,” she said.
She is also grateful to Mark Bovenizer of the Shepard Foundation, which has provided financial support for the conference and which has also pledged to cover the cost of attending for some parents in need. For more information, contact the municipal alliance at (609) 737-0120, Ext. 642.