Success Stories

 Profile Way to Grow families/children and their accomplishments

Inspiring Opportunity and Building Legacy

Inspiring Opportunity and Building Legacy 2560 1700 Ken Story

Always driven and confident in her abilities, Mina graduated high school in 2010, ready to continue her schooling. However, a year later she found it difficult to balance her new motherhood with her education, so she put school on hold to raise her young son, Itachi.

Early on, Mina discovered that Itachi was struggling with education fundamentals and lacked social skills. In 2013, her sister first mentioned Way to Grow, but Mina was skeptical. “I thought I didn’t need help and that this meant I was doing something wrong as a mother,” she explains.

After suffering the tragic loss of her second child shortly after birth, Mina enrolled in Way to Grow and gained the support of a Family Educator. “I learned that sometimes as a parent you don’t know it all, and Way to Grow is there to help further your skills to improve your child’s life,” she recalls. Itachi entered Way to Grow’s Preschool P.A.L.S. the following year and flourished in his new learning environment, surpassing Mina’s expectations.

Way to Grow was an asset to Mina and her family, but it also taught her that as a parent she had to advocate for her child and be active in their education. For example, she saw a change in her interactions during parent-teacher conferences. “At first I was uncomfortable. It’s easy to just show up, get the report, and leave,” Mina explains. “I learned how ‘what to ask’ translates into ‘what more I can do for my child.’ It really put emphasis on the value of being proactive in my child’s education.”

Continuing that proactive momentum, Mina decided to become one of Way to Grow’s strongest parent champions by attending multiple events and hearings at the State Capitol, as well as speaking on behalf of Way to Grow’s families at the annual Children’s Day at the Capitol. “It is always about coming from a place of ‘yes’ when it comes to being proactive in early education. There is always something to do,” Mina shares.

Inspired by the growth and development of her son, Mina decided to return to school, and in 2017 she completed the community health worker program at Summit OIC and became a certified nursing assistant. Mina has since joined Way to Grow’s staff as a new Family Educator. Congratulations, Mina!

Building Confidence

Building Confidence 1449 948 Ken Story

“I couldn’t sit and do nothing,” explains Deborah as her daughter Patty plays around her. Patty, a rambunctious eight year-old, was born with a genetic abnormality that affects her ability to communicate and concentrate. “She struggles with learning, but she has such a high level of empathy,” says Collette, their Way to Grow Family Educator.

Deborah herself struggled in school and was a victim of bullying as a child. Looking back, she realizes this deeply affected her confidence. As a mother, she was adamant about creating a better life for her daughter and knew she needed resources to help make that happen, especially considering Patty’s specific needs. Determined to support her daughter in every possible way, Deborah tirelessly researched and contacted resources to help Patty progress and grow. In early 2015, a referral from Healthy Families brought Deborah and Patty to Way to Grow.

Fast forward to today, and Collette says Patty has made significant progress in her reading. What’s more, together she and Deborah have continued to build Patty’s social skills while connecting her with environments and mentors that are helping her thrive. Reflecting on her time with Way to Grow, Deborah also recognizes that Patty was not the only one growing these past few years. By attending education and advocacy events, Deborah has expanded her own social skills, increased her confidence, and has become one of Way to Grow’s most active parent champions. “Collette and Way to Grow have been a godsend to our lives. I cannot wait to see what our future holds!”

Empowerment, Independence

Empowerment, Independence 1449 948 Ken Story

With a desire for a better life, Siham* moved her family to America. But life didn’t get better, it got worse, at least at first.

Siham became aware of the developmental difficulties of her three-year-old identical twin daughters, Aliyah and Samiirah, when she brought them to their yearly checkup. The doctor noticed that the girls were not only delayed, but that they communicated through emotion and a language of utterances between them that didn’t resemble English, Spanish, or Arabic. No one could understand them. Between the language barrier and increasing instances of fits and tantrums, Siham knew she had to take action.

She was referred to a speech pathologist and searched for resources to help her work with her daughters, but met with many challenges. Unfortunately, her own husband discouraged and demeaned her, and created barriers for the family to receive services. “During a home visit,” Siham recalls, “my husband texted me from the other room, telling me to kick out the home visitors.” He deliberately worked to isolate them from the community. “He kept us pent up in the apartment most of the time, and I felt alone and hopeless,” Siham shares, as other agencies dropped them because of the immense obstacles in the way.

Everything changed with a referral to Way to Grow in 2015 when she began working with Family Educator Collette. “The first time we met,” remembers Collette, “I could feel her hopelessness and emptiness. But I could also feel her strength, potential, and love for her daughters.”

Their strong bond transcended education. “Collette was the first person to make me feel comfortable here, and I knew she cared about us,” reflects Siham. “She gave me hope and kept reminding me of my strength.” Collette visited regularly, bringing diapers and food, even though Siham’s husband became angry and threatened to call the police if Collette returned.

Finally, after several instances of physical abuse, Siham gained the courage to leave her husband and seek independence, a better life, and a brighter future for her daughters. “Collette and Way to Grow helped empower me to realize my strength, ask for help, and leave.”

Today, Siham is an American citizen, and she and her daughters are living in transitional housing. Aliyah and Samiirah, now six, are thriving in school, have many friends, and love the creative arts. Siham seeks permanent housing, a stable job, and a return to school once settled. “I want an education and a good job so I can provide for them, and then give back because Way to Grow has given me so much,” she shares. “My mom told me once, ‘It is not enough to receive help, but to give it too.’” She dreams of a beautiful home and her daughters coming home from school with awards.

Siham admits they still have a long way to go to reach their goals, but success and change is no accident. It is the culmination of hard work, perseverance, community, and a burning spirit to become and create something more.

*Names have been changed

Access to Resources, Connection to Culture

Access to Resources, Connection to Culture 2560 1700 Ken Story

Shared culture creates a bond that transcends everyday interactions, as culture resides in the heart and soul. This kind of deep connection can be found between Sydney and her family, and their Family Educator, Alison. Native American tradition and identity have always been important to Sydney and her husband. In fact, it’s what brought them to Minneapolis­—they wanted to learn the Dakota language and traditions so they could immerse their future children in their own culture.

After giving birth to her first child, Sydney pursued a degree in psychology. However, after having her second child a year later, she began to feel the pressure of all her responsibilities. “I would be given the choice to interact with my children or do my homework. Sometimes I would even have to work my part-time job, so some nights I would be doing homework until 2 a.m., and then I would have to wake up early in the morning and do it all over again with a smile. It wasn’t working well,” Sydney recalls. She credits a strong support system that included her Family Educator, Alison, and her husband as essential to getting through that tough time. Since then, the three have continued to work together to ensure the couple’s now four children have access to opportunities.

“If I need something, have a question, or want some advice, I pick up my phone and give Alison a call, and she always has an answer for me,” Sydney explains. Yet Alison is more than just another resource for the family—she truly understands Sydney and the goals she has for her family. “Having Alison, having a native person as my Family Educator, has positively contributed to my experience at Way to Grow. There is something about sharing a culture; she just understands where I am coming from and what I am going through,” Sydney expresses. “She makes it easy and comfortable.”

Knowing that other cultures and community opportunities are abundant in Minneapolis, it was important for Sydney to have her family experience as many as possible, something Alison and Way to Grow have helped them to do. “Alison and Way to Grow give us access to resources, opportunities, and events that we never would have been able to experience otherwise. They have been able to show us what community really is, and we are so grateful.”

Education as a Foundation

Education as a Foundation 1800 1200 Ken Story

Regina, Ju’vane, and their six children have been a part of Way to Grow for more than a decade due to a promise Ju’Vane made his mother. “In 2007, before my mom passed away, I promised her that I would change my life for the better. I moved to Minneapolis and joined the FATHER Project when my daughter was two years old,” explains Ju’Vane. It was at one of the FATHER Project’s classes that Ju’Vane was encouraged to pursue a referral to Way to Grow.

The Carpenter’s first Family Educator, Tonia, made such an initial impact on the family. “When Tonia came to our house, the original purpose was to work with Jayda, but the other children became so curious that they would sit and listen to what was going on as well,” Ju’vane recalls. Over time, the family’s relationship evolved into a lifetime bond keeping them close to Tonia. “I built such a strong relationship with Tonia over the years,” says Regina. “While Tonia has retired and we now work with Carmen, we still keep in touch. Two of my children even play sports with her grandchildren.”

With six children at home, Regina and Ju’Vane clearly have a busy life, but they have made education a family priority by making time to read together and spending lots of time outdoors away from screens. “We’ve been empowered and have learned so much from working with Tonia and Carmen. From working with us in our home and even attending school conferences with us, they’ve been by our side every step of the way and helped us become better parents,” Regina explains.

Through the support of Way to Grow, the Carpenters have laid an educational foundation for all their children, prioritizing family time and learning together. In fact, despite being so busy, they have become one of Way to Grow’s most active families. Beyond regular home visits, three of their children have attended Preschool Pals, they have taken Cooking Matters courses, participate weekly in Play to Grow at Lucy Laney, and attend every Family Engagement Night and special event they can.

Education is such a powerful tool. It brings families together and sets a precedent for bigger and brighter futures—and the Carpenters truly reflect that.

A Mom’s Transformation from Client to Champion: Meet Deborah

A Mom’s Transformation from Client to Champion: Meet Deborah 427 336 Ken Story

Our newest employee at Way to Grow, Ken, recently attended a number of education events at the State Capitol. Still learning all of his new coworkers, he assumed Deborah was on staff and just doing her job as she participated like a veteran advocate: Listening to speakers, talking to legislators, engaging with other attendees—she was doing it all. It was not until later that Ken learned that this amazing champion was not one of his colleagues but was instead one of our clients. Deborah may not work at Way to Grow, but she has become one of our most active parents and strongest voices for parent advocacy.

Referred to us by Healthy Families, Deborah brought her then five-year-old daughter Patty to Way to Grow in early 2015. Deborah herself had struggled in school and was a victim of bullying as a child. Looking back, she realizes this deeply affected her confidence. As a mother, she was adamant about a creating a better life for her daughter and knew she needed resources to help make that happen, especially considering Patty’s specific needs.

Patty has a genetic abnormality that affects her ability to communicate and concentrate. “She struggles with learning, but she has such a high level of empathy,” said Collette, their Way to Grow Family Educator. Determined to support her daughter in every possible way, Deborah constantly researched and contacted resources to help Patty progress and grow. “I could not sit down and not do anything,” she explained.

After being enrolled in Way to Grow for two years, the family was assigned to Collette, and there was an instant connection. Both she and Deborah feel they come from similar experiences, making the connection between the three of them so strong. After three years of working with the family, Deborah now refers to Collette as a “godsend” because she has been such a great advocate for her and Patty. When asked to explain her definition of an advocate, Deborah notes, “An advocate is someone that has your back and stands with you. They make things happen for you if you can’t, and they also push you when you need to do things for yourself.”

Collette has worked with Deborah and Patty in their home during regular home visits, and the two have seen exponential growth in Patty. Moved by her daughter’s progress and what it has done for her family, Deborah realized she could help other children and families just like hers. That is why she decided to become an advocate  not only her own child but for other vulnerable children as well.

In 2017, through funds from MN Comeback, Way to Grow developed My Voice Matters, a parent engagement and advocacy initiative that involves parents in advocacy and empowers them to make the right choices for their children. This past fall, Way to Grow hosted a Parent Champion Workshop Series that included four listening sessions and trainings entitled “Advocacy 101” and “Ready for Elementary.” Along with over 100 other parents, Deborah attended each session, learning how to be an advocate in Patty’s schools, her community, and in public policy.

Empowered by her relationship with Collette and her growing advocacy skills, Deborah found herself becoming a stronger parent champion for her daughter. “We were in an individual planning meeting and I felt like the interviewers were ignoring me. I felt left out and neglected until I went back to what I had learned and inserted myself into the conversation, telling them that I wanted her tested from head to toe.” Deborah had become a true Parent Champion.

It wasn’t long until she got involved at the policy level. In February, Deborah attended the 2018 Children and Youth Issues Briefing in St. Paul. “I felt scared going in; I had to text a friend,” she said, reflecting on the morning. “It is so easy to shut down when in a place like that. I’ve been there, but I know we need more parents involved; I told myself ‘We need more of this.’”

A few short weeks later, she joined the Way to Grow contingency at the 2nd Annual Voices and Choices for Children Day on the Hill at the Minnesota State Capitol. Not missing a beat, she immediately started meeting people, sharing her stories and experiences, and became a part of conversations. “I knew there were some important people in that room,” Deborah explained.

When asked what she has noticed about herself throughout this process, Deborah choked up and said she has seen a lot of change in herself. Reminded of her definition of an advocate, she was asked if she considered herself to be one. Deborah looked up and simply replied, “I never thought about it like that. Yes, I guess I am. I have learned to stand up for the things that Patty and I need.”

Deborah’s hopes for the future are that people with influence and ability in education will listen to parents and do what is best for children. She told us that she will continue to attend events and call and e-mail her legislators when it comes to important education matters and initiatives. She is already planning to attend the Advocacy for Children Day on March 29th at the Capitol.

For any other parent thinking about getting involved, Deborah had some advice: “You have to do it. Things will not happen for your child, and they will fall through the cracks. I want others to know there is help. There are people that will help, but you have to show up and be consistent. You can do it for your baby.” That statement got little Patty in the conversation with an enthusiastic, “Yeah, you can do it!”

Deborah is an amazing addition to our parent champions at Way to Grow and is part of a growing community of engaged families. “It is good to know I am not the only one. I am stronger because I have Way to Grow in my corner,” she explains.

Deborah, all of us at Way to Grow are stronger because we have parents like you in our corner.

Shamsa’s 20 Years and Counting

Shamsa’s 20 Years and Counting 2560 1707 Maren Nelson

From a corner of the Way to Grow office, boisterous laughter rises above the quiet workday chatter. No one has to ask—everyone knows that voice, and smiles spread around the office. Shamsa Idle, a Way to Grow Family Educator, throws her hands in the air, smiling as she recalls a story from her most recent home visit to a new family. Her stories are plentiful, her joy is infectious, and after two decades of service to her families, she has established herself as a rock in her Minneapolis community.

Shamsa’s journey to Way to Grow started 10 years before she set foot in the United States. It was 1987, and she had just completed nursing school in Mogadishu, Somalia. Shamsa knew she wanted to commit herself to changing the lives of families, so she took a job at the Mother and Child Health Center operated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Her work took her out of Mogadishu and into the surrounding countryside, where she led a team into rural villages to educate families and provide basic services. She and her team taught nutrition, provided education on healthy practices for safe food and water, and distributed immunizations to some of the most isolated parents and children in Somalia.

Knowing the immense value of her work, the Somali government awarded Shamsa a competitive scholarship from the WHO and the World Food Program (WFP) from the United Nations to go to Italy for one and a half years and train in prenatal and infant nutrition. One of 10 people selected from Somalia, she felt blessed to be given the opportunity to learn and return with even more skills to benefit the rural families in her community.

Yet all was not well in her home country, as conflicts continued to escalate and it was apparent that war was on the horizon. Of the 10 students who studied in Italy, only three decided to return to Somalia at the conclusion of their program. Despite growing unrest, Shamsa chose to return home. “I had to pay back my country,” she explained. “I had been given so much and did not want to be selfish.”

In 1991, eight months after her return to her position at the Mother and Child Health Center in Mogadishu, war broke out in Somalia. “Everyone ran outside of the country to save their lives, so my whole family went to Nairobi, Kenya.” Shamsa had always planned to return home once it was safe, but year after year the conflict dragged on and the humanitarian crisis only worsened. For three years, she lived with her family in a refugee camp in Nairobi, waiting to either return home or obtain a visa to enter the United States.

Shamsa had never dreamed of leaving her country, her work, or her family, but in 1996 she arrived alone in the United States. With her papers finalized, Shamsa applied to bring her family over and moved to the Twin Cities to begin building a new life. “My friend was in Minnesota and welcomed me. This place allows people from all over the world, that speak different languages, to come together.” With one of the largest Somali communities outside of Somalia, it felt a little more like home. “I went to the Somali community here, and they connected me with someone to help me find a job.” That job ended up being the only one she would ever need.

In 1997, Way to Grow was growing and looking for people who wanted to work with families and children, and Shamsa was a perfect fit. Just one year after arriving in the United States, she found herself meeting new staff, learning a new city, and connecting with families from all around the world as a new Family Educator. At the time, Way to Grow was just building its directory of resources, and as a new member of the team, Shamsa found herself driving around a brand new city, going block by block to inventory resources in South Minneapolis. Although challenging work, Family Educators like Shamsa truly helped lay the groundwork for Way to Grow as it is today through their persistence and dedication to building a stronger community. As an added benefit, Shamsa jokes that she now knows the streets so well that people rely on her like a GPS: “When we have taxis bringing families to events, they are calling me asking me how to get there!”

When asked why she has stayed at Way to Grow for so long, Shamsa replies, “I am working with families. I am working with children, and that was my passion back home. I want to help families to succeed in their lives and their children to get ready for their education. I want to make change in our community and help those people who get here but don’t know the systems or culture.” It seems that no matter how far she travels and no matter the hardships she has overcome, helping new families will always come first for Shamsa. “When a child is waiting for you at the home, smiling. When you see a child reading. You can see what we did. That is exciting.”

A pillar in both the Way to Grow office and our Minneapolis community, Shamsa has touched the lives of thousands of people over the past 20 years and shows no signs of slowing down. She is the first to declare that she will never give up on a family and will fight for her families and their children day in and day out. Her inspiring dedication has forged long-lasting relationships, grounded the Somali community, and helped build a stronger Way to Grow. “I am everywhere!” she proclaims with a laugh.

Shamsa, we are so lucky for it!



Strengthening Families: Hassan and Asha’s Story

Strengthening Families: Hassan and Asha’s Story 1200 800 Ivy Marsnik

“From the moment we met Shany in 2005, she was very respectful,” Hassan says thinking back to 12 years ago to the day when a neighbor introduced his family to Shany, a Way to Grow Family Educator. “The fact that Shany was a part of our culture and spoke our language made it very comfortable for my wife, Asha, who was often home alone with our children.”

Shany enrolled the family and began working with Hassan and Asha’s oldest son, Hamza, who was four years old at the time. Shany brought learning materials over each week to help Hamza with his reading and writing, and helped Asha find and enroll Hamza in a preschool program.

Hassan spent the next few years studying at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul to become a high school math teacher. Over the course of his studies, he and Asha had three more children. As the children grew, their reading and vocabulary skills improved with Shany’s guidance. Shany always explained how the children were doing, and helped Hassan and Asha understand where each child was developmentally.  Hassan was very pleased to see the improvements. He knew Shany was teaching his children the skills they would need to be successful in the classroom.

Over time, Shany became the family’s friend. “She served as an educator and mentor not only to our children, but to our entire family,” Hassan says. “Shany provided guidance and help to all of us. Whenever she made a home visit, she brought books, school supplies, learning materials and toys, and even bikes for our children. She also provided Asha and me with important community resources such as housing, library, and school choice information. Shany even went as far as to help my wife, whose English language is limited, translate documents, enroll in English Language Learning (ELL) classes, and complete a Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate program.”

“We began telling others in our community about Way to Grow the same way our neighbor had shared the word about the organization with us. It is such a great program, and our community needs it. It is so important especially in the inner city where schools are challenging for English language learners who don’t understand the system, how it works, or that our children need supplemental learning because what they learn in the classroom isn’t enough. Way to Grow helps families and immigrant communities new to the school system and brings them up. Having Shany in our home was a huge plus.”

In January 2017, Hassan and Asha moved from Minneapolis to a home in Bloomington, outside of Way to Grow’s current service area. According to Hassan, the family had two main criteria when finding a new home: having a high quality school district, and the overall safety of the community. Though Hassan and Asha miss the connections they made at Way to Grow, they could not be happier to have a place for their children to call their own.

New Graduate, Restored Hope

New Graduate, Restored Hope 2560 1441 Ivy Marsnik

One year ago, Alicia came to us seeking help for herself and her 7 month old daughter. Struggling with the recent loss of her sister, Alicia had dropped out of school and lacked the confidence she needed to persevere. Knowing that she needed to finish high school, Alicia was as confused by the process as she was terrified of failure.

Alicia enrolled in Way to Grow and began attending our monthly Dream Tracks program. She blossomed. After getting a job at a local grocery store and finding a child care program for her young daughter, Carmen, Alicia’s Way to Grow Family Educator, encouraged Alicia to find out how many credits she needed in order to graduate. “I left that responsibility up to her,” Carmen says. “She was elated when she found out she only needed one or two credits. Once we knew that, we got to work setting up a plan.”

With Carmen’s help, Alicia enrolled in MNIC Unity’s diploma program. A few months later, before her family, friends, and support system, Alicia walked across the stage to accept her high school diploma. Acknowledging the life-changing experience, Alicia explains, “When my sister passed, I didn’t think I could graduate. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not making it.’ Then, people encouraged me like David [my teacher at MNIC] and my [Way to Grow] advocate.”

Her new diploma carries new hope. Alicia plans to go on to technical college for administrative assistance, continuing to set goals for herself and her family. “It has been a metamorphosis,” Carmen explains. “Over the last year, Alicia has grown more confident, open, motivated, positive, and best of all, happy again. We are both very excited for what’s next.”

The Gift of Hope

The Gift of Hope 150 150 Ivy Marsnik

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