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Lisa Bryant

A Volunteer Program that’s Making a Difference

A Volunteer Program that’s Making a Difference 2560 1707 Lisa Bryant

Pictured: Melody, a Wooddale Church volunteer, mentors Anna (left) and Dalylah (center) as they learn about research and making a prediction by testing an object’s buoyancy.

For three years, Way to Grow has collaborated with volunteers from Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie on a tutoring initiative that’s enhancing children’s learning experience.

Two evenings per week, trained volunteers from Wooddale Church provide after-school tutoring to children, ages 5-8 years, who attend Lucy C. Laney Community School in North Minneapolis, or reside in the community.  The volunteers encourage the young learners to tackle grade-level activities in reading, science and math, and guide them through the activities to help them gain an understanding.

“Our collaboration with Wooddale Church has been critical to our families,” says Ronel Robinson, a Way to Grow program director. “Together, we’re empowering parents by helping them create better home-school connections and a culture of learning to improve children’s educational outcomes.”

Giving Parents a Voice

Giving Parents a Voice 2560 1707 Lisa Bryant

On September 26, Way to Grow launched the first in a series of parent engagement workshops designed to equip parents with the necessary resources and information to advocate for their children’s education and ultimately impact long-term educational outcomes.  My Voice Matters, an innovative initiative developed in collaboration with several of our community partners, will provide parents from seven Minneapolis neighborhoods with an opportunity to voice their concerns about their children’s education, and provide training sessions to help parents navigate the school system and make the school choice that is best for their children.

During the first workshop, nearly 55 people representing Way to Grow families filled the room to listen and share their common concerns about language and cultural barriers, communicating with teachers, cultural competency, and choosing the appropriate school for their children. Information gathered from the series will be used to develop future training sessions.

“Every parent we’ve talked to is concerned about their children’s educational future and the role schools play in preparing them for success,” says Megan McLaughlin, Way to Grow’s program director. “What we’re doing is taking the initiative to empower parents so they’re more deeply engaged in their children’s education and are better able to advocate as a community leader on their children’s behalf for broader education policy.”

In addition to providing parents and families with resources and trainings, this year-long initiative will ultimately provide them training to advocate for system and policy change at the community level, as well as at the school, city and state level. These advocacy trainings, hosted by our community partners, will teach parents how to mobilize others to be more active at school board meetings, and engage key legislators in conversations about their children’s educational future. Ultimately, they will learn how to testify as a group at the Capitol on Advocacy for Children Day 2018, along with Way to Grow CEO Carolyn Smallwood to help shape future policy.

Shine Celebration recap

Shine Celebration recap 1800 1200 Lisa Bryant

Thank you!  Our 2017 Shine Celebration: Blessings in Disguise, held on Friday, October 27 was an extraordinary evening of community and generosity!  Over 400 guests came out to The Depot in Minneapolis to celebrate the work of Way to Grow and empowering parents to be their children’s primary educator.  Together with sponsors, table hosts and board members, our guests gave $490,000 to support the mission of Way to Grow – an all-time high!  Words can hardly express our gratitude for this tremendous show of support.

Highlights of the evening included a rousing keynote presentation by Dr. Arthur Rolnick on the power of early childhood education, a moving personal story of triumph from a Way to Grow parent, and a heartfelt reflection on generosity from event co-chairs Julie and Doug Baker, Jr.  Remarks from Way to Grow alumni, an exceptional collection of silent and live auction items and experiences, the soulful song-stylings of master of ceremonies T. Mychael Rambo, and festive music by Salsa del Soul helped bring the Shine Celebration to its soaring conclusion.

Your commitment makes it possible for us to empower parents and ensure every child has a chance to succeed. Because of you, we are able to provide more families with our home visiting services, high-quality early childhood and health education, elementary programming and connections to family resources.  Thank you for sharing your blessings so generously!

Playing with Your Child Promotes Brain Development and Long-term Growth

Playing with Your Child Promotes Brain Development and Long-term Growth 2560 1707 Lisa Bryant

Did you know making faces and smiling at your baby, responding to gestures, or playing “peek-a-boo” during the first critical years of life, has a profound effect on your baby’s overall growth, brain development, and educational achievement? Your playful interactions, which may seem insignificant to you, actually are helping to develop the building blocks for your baby’s brain. This ultimately forms the neurological connections that establish the cognitive and emotional skills children need later in life.

Back-and-forth play with your baby is called a “serve” and “return.” Your baby “serves” by babbling or making a gesture. You “return” by talking to your baby and smiling, or pointing to a specific object and saying its name.

Here’s how “serve” and “return” works in the development of your baby’s language: Your baby babbles or gestures and you respond by saying, “momma” or “dadda.” Each time you repeat this action, your baby’s brain associates a sound with a respective object. As your baby’s level of cognition develops, your “serve” and “return” interplay becomes more deliberate. For example, your baby says “momma” or “dadda” and reaches for you. You respond by smiling, picking up your baby and saying, “I’m momma” or “I’m dadda.” Each stage of language acquisition builds upon the previous stage. In the preschool or kindergarten classroom, this similar interplay with teachers helps children associate sounds with the letters of the alphabet and the formation words and sentences.

This back-and-forth interplay not only nurtures language development, it also teaches your child how to engage in social interactions, fosters positive relationships with others, and encourages your child to recall experiences and associate sounds and objects – all are essential to your child’s development.

Consider these steps when you use the “serve” and “return” technique during your play with your child.

Be attentive to your child’s “serve”

Is your child looking or pointing at something? Making a sound or facial expression? Moving their arms and legs? Each of these actions is a “serve.” The key is to pay attention to what your child is focused on. Look for small opportunities throughout the day to engage with your child, such as when you’re dressing them or waiting in line at the store.

Why is observing your child’s actions important in play? By noticing serves, you’ll learn a lot about their abilities, interests, and needs. You’ll also strengthen your parent-child bond by noticing these serves.

Support and encourage your child by returning the “serve”

After your child “serves” to you, you can encourage them by offering comfort with a hug and gentle words, or by simply acknowledging your child. These acknowledgements could include facial expressions or sounds, a smile to let your child know you see the same thing, or picking up the object your child points to and giving it to them.

Responding to your child is important. By showing interest, encouraging them, and supporting their exploration, you reward their curiosity. If you do not return your child’s serve, you may cause undue stress and frustration. Returning serves lets them know you’ve understood their thoughts and feelings.

Name the object

When you return your child’s “serve” by naming the object, you are making important connections in her brain, even before she is able to speak or understand your words. You can name anything – a person, thing, action, or feeling. Naming is important. When you name what your child is focused on, you help them understand the world around them and what to expect. Naming also gives your child words to use and lets them know you care.

Create a back-and-forth interaction … and wait for your child

Every time you return a serve, give your child a chance to respond. Taking turns can be quick or may continue, going back and forth several times. It’s important that you wait for your child. Children need time to form their responses, especially when they are learning new things.

Why is waiting important? Taking turns helps children learn self-control and how to get along with others. By waiting, you give your child time to develop ideas and build confidence and independence. Waiting also helps you understand their needs more clearly.

Share your child’s focus

Children signal when they’re done or ready to move on to a new activity. Your child might let go of one toy and pick up another, turn away to look at something, or walk away and say, “All done!” When you share your child’s focus, you’ll notice when they are ready to end one activity and begin another. When you can find moments for your child to take the lead, you support them as they explores the world, making more “serve” and “return” interactions possible.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. 2010. Three Core Concepts in Early Development., MA: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. 2011. Five Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return., MA: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. 2014. Let’s Grow Kids Campaign: Focus on the First Years. “Serve” and “Return” for Strong Brain Connections. Middlebury, VT: Vermont Community Foundation.

You are Your Child’s Best Advocate

You are Your Child’s Best Advocate 2560 1700 Lisa Bryant

One of the most important responsibilities of a parent is to advocate for your child—being their cheerleader on the sidelines, a defender against their opponents, and a voice when their words seem muted. Every day, you strive to provide your child with the best so that their journey in life is a little less bumpy, with fewer twists and turns. As a parent, you have a profound impact on their success. A study on parent involvement concluded that a single overriding factor—parent involvement—determined a baby’s future opportunities for success or failure in life (Tough, 2016). Similarly, studies conducted on student achievement suggest that a student with parents who are involved in their education is more likely to do better in school, have better social and behavioral skills, stay in school, and graduate (Henderson and Mapp, 2002).

Your child’s years in school are when they need you to be an advocate the most. Each school year, they will meet a new teacher, navigate the teacher’s expectations, adapt to a new classroom culture, get to know new classmates, and participate in after-school activities. School will demand your child be skilled at getting along and working with others, negotiating, working hard, and coping with failure and success. With your help, your child’s school career—from pre-k to graduation—will be some of the best years!

Advocating for your child is not always easy, but it shouldn’t be avoided. The key to being an effective advocate is to maintain a strong relationship with your child, understand how to approach the teacher or school administration, and recognize when to intervene on your child’s behalf. Way to Grow suggests you follow these four key guidelines to empower you as a parent to effectively advocate for your child:

1. Establish positive, consistent lines of communications at home

As a parent, you are your child’s first and foremost teacher. Formative years at home teach your child how to interact with others and develop motor, language, and cognitive skills. These skills are best nurtured by positive, quality interactions and consistent communication with adults. Whether it is helping your child name their feelings, listening to a recap of their day, or talking out a problem, your everyday interactions should be built on a solid foundation of trust. When a home environment is based on strong communications and supportive relationships, your child will feel safe coming to you when they have a problem at school. You can’t be with them every moment of the day, but you can be the person they go to after the school bell rings.

2. You are the expert when it comes to your child

No one knows your child better than you. When school starts, it is your job as a parent to make teachers, coaches, and school administrators aware of your child’s special talents and skills, as well as any needs or special considerations they may have. At home, children can receive one-on-one support, but in school they are one of many. While teachers and staff work hard to ensure every student succeeds in the classroom, nothing can replace the insight of a parent. By working with school staff, you can ensure your child is able to utilize their strengths in school, as well as get vital support when needed. Children are more likely to gain confidence and thrive in school when they employ their talents and have their needs supported by the adults in their life—parents and teachers alike.

3. Develop and maintain communication channels within your child’s school

Establish a good rapport with your child’s teacher, school principal, and any other administrator who may be able to provide you with insight or advice. If you only rely on parent nights or parent-teacher conferences to start the conversation, you may be missing out on ways to help your child excel. Schedule meetings often to meet with teachers and the principal, and remain in constant communication with them regarding your child. The beginning of the school year is a great time to ask about the best way to communicate, whether by phone, email, or in-person.

Beyond academics, try getting involved with the regular goings-on of the school and take time to learn the school culture. Consider volunteering in the classroom or at events to increase your involvement. In doing so, you will also meet other parents, enhance your relationship with school staff, and become even more connected to your child’s educational experiences.

Check with your school to see how you can be involved. Remember, you don’t have to do it all—commit to something that fits in your schedule and is best suited to your own skill set. Some activities may include:

  • Attend Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) meetings
  • Become an in-classroom parent volunteer or chaperone a field trip
  • Volunteer to be a tutor or mentor
  • Help with a major in-school project
  • Attend your child’s after-school activities
  • Volunteer for evening events
  • Assist with a fundraiser or organize a drive


4. Create a network of other parent advocates

There’s power in numbers. To strengthen your ability to be an advocate for your child, find and connect with other parents who are also advocates. Identify a time to meet as a group and meet often to discuss and learn from one another. Together you can talk about strategies that may or may not have worked an identify teachers and administrators willing to support parent advocates. By building a network, not only will you gain new perspectives and allies, you may also find a greater support system for yourself as a parent. Your child doesn’t need to be the only one to make friends at school!

Advocating for your child takes time and looks different for every parent. As you develop new tools and resources, nurture relationships with teachers and school administrators, and increase your visibility within the school setting, remind yourself that you don’t have to do it all. Like your child, you are your best self when you are playing to your strengths. That said, remember to stay involved! Always keep in mind, you are the first and foremost advocate for your child—you are the key to their success throughout school, as well as in life.

Additional Resources:
Looking to make a greater impact on your child’s education? Check out and download a couple of our other resources for parents below and then connect with Way to Grow to receive updates on our programming!

Henderson, A.T. and Mapp, K.L. (2002). A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

Tough, Paul. “To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents,” New York Times, May 22, 2016, p. SR1.

Way to Grow announces its participation in the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program

Way to Grow announces its participation in the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program 667 553 Lisa Bryant

MINNEAPOLIS—July 26, 2017—Way to Grow, the Twin Cities’ preeminent leader for early childhood and K-3rd grade education has announced today that it is participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and has begun to serve meals at no separate charge to children enrolled at Way to Grow Preschool Pals (Center for Families), 3333 4th Street North, Minneapolis, Minn. 55412.

CACFP is designed to improve the diets of young children and increase the opportunity for children to eat a variety of nutritious foods.  The program is operated by the Minnesota Department of Education, and meals meet nutrition standards established by the United States Department of Agriculture.

In the operation of USDA Child Nutrition programs, no participant will be discriminated against because of race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity.

For more information about Way to Grow’s participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program, please contact: Craig Allen, Education Coordinator at 612-874-4740, or

To learn how you can help us do more, visit, or call (612) 874-4740. Way to Grow is headquartered at 125 West Broadway Avenue, Suite 110, Minneapolis, Minn. 55411.


Way to Grow Celebrates the Achievement of Early Learners enrolled in ‘Great by Eight’

Way to Grow Celebrates the Achievement of Early Learners enrolled in ‘Great by Eight’ 150 150 Lisa Bryant

Q&A with a Family Educator: Educating Parents about the Measles Outbreak

Q&A with a Family Educator: Educating Parents about the Measles Outbreak 150 150 Lisa Bryant

Recent reports now confirm the measles outbreak in Minnesota has spread to four counties, the most recent is LeSueur County, south of the Twin Cities. The number of confirmed cases has risen to 69 as of May 24. These cases are primarily affecting unvaccinated children ranging in age from 0 to 17 years. Way to Grow’s work in the community includes health and wellness education to help families prepare their children for success. We spoke to our Family Educators to find out how they are educating parents about the measles virus to better prepare them to make decisions regarding the health of their children.

Shamsa Idle, a Family Educator and 19-year employee with Way to Grow, was born and raised in Somalia, where she earned her degree as an RN. She worked with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (MCA), and with the World Food Programme (WFP) to eliminate malnutrition and provide care to babies suffering from low birth weight.

What information are you and other Family Educators telling families about the measles virus?

During home visits since the outbreak, Family Educators, like myself, have been asking parents if their children’s immunizations are up to date, providing them with information about the symptoms of measles, vaccination and care information, as well as providing them with resources recommended by the Minnesota Department of Health. We are emphasizing to our families how important it is to have their children vaccinated for mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) and to watch for symptoms. If a family’s child has not been vaccinated, we encourage them to call their clinic  and schedule a vaccination immediately. If they have questions, they can always ask me; otherwise, they can call their doctor.

What are some of the questions your families are asking about the virus?

One question parents have been asking is what are the symptoms? I tell them, symptoms include a fever, rash and runny nose, which occur between eight and 12 days after expose to the virus. Another question they’ve asked is if their child contracts the virus, how many days will he/she be out of school? I let them know that their child will have to stay home from school for 21 days, and this is for the safety of their child, as well as all other children. But the key question every Somali parent has been asking is if their child can become autistic as a result getting the measles vaccine. I tell them there is no direct cause-related incidence of a child becoming autistic from the MMR vaccine.

Explain why the rate of unvaccinated children is high within Minnesota’s Somali community?

It has been a long-time issue, even before this recent outbreak. First, I understand it was a myth started by a London-based researcher who wrote a paper reporting cases of autism triggered by the MMR vaccine, and everyone believed it. Second, the Somali people are a people who communicate with one another a great deal. This myth may have been passed on from one person to the next, or one group of people to another in conversation. Third, the media has helped spread the myth within the Somali community.

Has any Way to Grow family’s child contracted the measles virus?

No. I am pleased to say that no WTG children have contracted measles.

As an RN who has worked with children who have suffered from dire health conditions, what advice can you offer WTG families?

My first advice is regarding the measles virus. Please, make certain your child’s immunizations are current. If they are not, get your child vaccinated immediately.

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