FEATURE — Winter 2008

Susan Stepleton, president and CEO of Parents as Teachers (PAT), works with Evonna Watford (left) and Lucy McGrosso at the University City Children’s Center. Officially implemented in 1984, PAT celebrates 25 years in 2009.

At Center’s Core Is Helping Children

As president and CEO of Parents as Teachers, alumna Susan Stepleton helps provide parents with child development knowledge and parenting support.

By Kristin Tennant

The stories of hundreds of children are safely stored in the mind and heart of Susan Stepleton, M.A. ’73 (German studies), M.S.W. ’79. Some of the stories are heart-wrenching and painful; all of them are compelling, urging Stepleton out of bed each morning and inspiring her to do what she can to improve children’s experiences.

As president and CEO of Parents as Teachers National Center, Stepleton can do a lot for children, on a large scale. She meets with congressional staff about initiatives like Head Start and No Child Left Behind. She collaborates with other national organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund. She visits the Pentagon to help solve problems for military families. And as an expert in nonprofit organizations and fund development, Stepleton not only guides Parents as Teachers (PAT), but she also advises other entities.

“My position involves lots of collaboration and think-tank work,” Stepleton says. “We’re always trying to figure out how we can better meet the needs of children and families, in any way possible.”

Started in Missouri in 1981 and officially implemented in 1984, Parents as Teachers provides parents with child development knowledge and parenting support. It has since expanded to all 50 states and many countries. Parents learn of PAT by word-of-mouth from friends and referrals from obstetricians and pediatricians, clinics, schools, and nonprofits. A voluntary program, it serves about 350,000 children a year.

Susan Stepleton talks with Kenisha Stallings and her 5-month-old daughter, Raegan Stallings, on the playground of the University City Children’s Center. At the Center, which provides a developmentally appropriate and highly nurturing environment, all staff members are trained in the Parents as Teachers Born to Learn® model.

The organization’s core program, Born to Learn®, sends parent educators into homes to visit parents and children during the crucial early years of life, between birth and kindergarten. Other key PAT programs support educators and effect change through policy work.

For every child helped, money is needed, making fund development an important part of Stepleton’s job. While many see it as a necessary evil of nonprofit work, Stepleton has a different take.

“Successful fund development is matchmaking, in a way—marrying those who need something with those who want and are able to help,” she says.

Unfortunately, Stepleton says, the lagging economy creates a Catch-22: Nonprofit giving is down, but the number of people needing services is up. Effectively motivating people to care—and ultimately give—requires understanding their differences and perspectives. Some people, for instance, are motivated by compassion; others, by logic.

“It’s always been impossible for me to understand how some people cannot care about giving children what they need,” Stepleton says. “But at the policy level, the conversation is not just about being compassionate. It’s a social justice matter, a matter of global competitiveness, and an economic matter—it just makes sense.”

Helping people and making the world a better place was ingrained in Stepleton during her childhood in Greencastle, Indiana, due in large part to the example set by her minister father and teacher mother.

“I grew up with the idea that there are important things to do in the world involving people,” she says.

That impulse was developed and honed through a variety of life-defining experiences in Stepleton’s teens and twenties: a year spent in Germany as an exchange student in the mid-sixties, a summer of volunteer work in Appalachia, work in a mental hospital, and visits to Austrian schools for kids with special needs.

“I was always interested in working with people who face greater challenges than most,” she says.

Then, Stepleton says, she got “very good advice” to continue her education and earned not only an M.S.W. at Washington University, but also an M.B.A. from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. The combination perfectly prepared her for 20 years with Edgewood Children’s Center, a large St. Louis social service agency and treatment center. During her last 13 years at Edgewood, Stepleton served as director.

When the position at Parents as Teachers became available, a solid program model was in place, but the organization needed someone with nonprofit experience to expand and elevate its profile. Stepleton saw it as an opportunity to shift her work from treatment to prevention, intervening for younger children and having a greater effect on public policy. In February 2002, Stepleton began at PAT with what she calls a “missionary fervor.”

“The emotional imperative is definitely there—it’s why I do what I do,” she says. “But I like to approach the problems logically, too, and find they’re easier for me to deal with on a national policy level.”

Stepleton is widely known as a trend watcher of issues affecting parents and children. Two of the trends she’s paying particular attention to are the changing needs of military families and issues surrounding cultural diversity.

“Army parents are often just 19 or 20 years old,” says Stepleton. “They’ve just graduated from high school, enlisted, moved away from family, and had a baby, which is overwhelming. Then you add a layer of stress and danger with active duty. It’s eye-opening to realize what we’re asking these young parents to do.”

To better meet their needs, PAT teamed up with members of Congress to develop the program Heroes at Home. Stepleton says they began the conversation in 2003 with a close examination of how separation, trauma, fear, and being away from a support system affect child development. Led by Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond of Missouri, the pilot’s first funding was included in the 2006 Defense Appropriations Bill.

Cultural diversity, the other key issue, has intensified in recent years with the increase of immigrant families entering the United States. Because PAT is often one of these families’ first contacts in their new country, parent educators serve as a bridge to other services people need, like health care and food stamps.

“I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna, but I see the increased number of cultures [in the United States] as an opportunity for everyone,” Stepleton says. “There’s a wonderful richness in these cultures, and an opportunity for reciprocal learning. We have a chance to affect the cultural biases children form before they even talk.”

Stepleton is also acutely aware of trends, like the economy, affecting nonprofit organizations. To respond effectively, she says nonprofits need to be “more business-like without losing the heart of their mission.”

“We need to be more collaborative and guided by good business principles like efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability,” she says.

When asked if and how her organization was affected by the presidential race and general political landscape, Stepleton laughs.

“Working with children is intensely political, from local school boards clear up to the federal level with Congress. We’re intensely focused on every election—we have to be. We don’t endorse any candidate, but we have a very clear platform that we push with both sides.”

Although there wasn’t an endorsement, Stepleton still has political dreams she’s willing to articulate.

“It’s really my dream that no one would ever get elected, to any seat anywhere, without being seriously confronted on how his or her policies will affect children and families,” she says.

“My goal is to widen the circle of those who care about children, then to put some teeth into that caring,” she says. “The key is meeting people where they are and talking about what matters to them—and then showing them how their concerns intersect with the concerns of children. I am never lacking in energy for this.”

Kristin Tennant is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois. She also is a writing instructor for MediaBistro and author of the blog halfwaytonormal.com.