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EPIC helps turn the tide for many WNY children

Pardon Madeline Gathers for trying to choke back tears, unsuccessfully at times, as she talks about the kids she works with in Western New York.

Gathers, program manager for Every Person Influences Children (EPIC), runs the nonprofit’s Just for Teens pregnancy, family story time and character education programs, as well as a special holiday event that takes place later this month.

“I know as a parent how much work it takes to raise a child to become a responsible adult,” she said. “I get emotional … but not all children have this opportunity.”

Gathers and her husband, Steven, have raised two daughters, Nadia, 22, and Adila, 20. The Brooklyn native started working with EPIC in 2001. Robert Wilson founded the Buffalo-based agency after his wife was murdered in 1977 by a 15-year-old neighbor who’d been abused as a child and lived in 11 foster homes. His goal was to intervene in the lives of other children to prevent similar tragedies by offering families, schools and communities more opportunities to learn nurturing, helpful parenting skills.

Crowns, wands, stuffed animals, “Hungry Caterpillar” children’s book-inspired vases, and parenting brochures fill her office. She often takes them on the road to schools across the region.

Q. What do you see that tends to overwhelm parents when it comes to their relationship with their children?

For all parents, it’s just go, go, go, go, go. We’re not stopping to take a breath and say, “I need to spend this quality time with my child.” I had to learn that with my own. I had to take that time, bring out the plastic table cover, put it on the floor and take out the paints. You have to make this conscious effort to say, “I need to do this.” A new thing now is that parents are concerned with their telephones. You see a child tugging at the mom, or off the chair and getting into something unsafe as the mom isn’t paying attention. In the programs I lead here, I talk about how the way you talk to your children now will help you in the long run. I give the example of how I used to sing a song at bedtime that I made up. My daughters remember this. There are other things I did along the way that helped my relationship with them. Some parents don’t see it, but I tell them, “We’re planting these seeds.”

Q. Have you come to conclusions raising your own children and having helped raise others what children need, the real basics?

The first one is love. That’s one of the things I discuss a lot in the Just for Teens program. We all have this love tank and we need to fill it. Love, listening to children, talking, encouraging, explaining. When I say these things, I think about families that can’t do all of it. But the nutrition part, taking care of your children, making sure that they have what they need to succeed in school are so important. So many of our parents are in survival mode. It’s really hard for them to think about these things. That’s why when we have our events for our families, we make them as special as possible so when they leave here, they can think, “That felt good.” You see the parents having as much fun as the kids.

Q. What have you learned on the job that has helped you raise your daughters?

So many things. First of all, learning styles. Both of them are so different that way. Also realizing they need alone time. I was able to learn to be positive. The things I learned here at work I would apply immediately at home. They were like, “Oh, here she comes again with that EPIC stuff.” When working with the teen parents, I’ve had my girls attend many of the workshops. … When my daughters were getting ready to go to high school and college and we’d talk about sex ed. I would say, “Please, stay focused.” They would say, “Mom, how would this look: My mother runs a program and one of her children becomes pregnant?” Because of EPIC and what I’ve learned and being able to have these conversations with my daughters, they were able to communicate that with me.

Q. Talk about the holiday event that will run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18.

We invite participants who’ve attended EPIC workshops. It’s an opportunity for families to come and have a nice time. We promote a literacy piece. Explore and More (Children’s Museum) comes in with their staff and helps demonstrate making a gingerbread house out of graham crackers. It’s really lovely to see parents and children have that moment together. Colvin Cleaners donates coats for us, so the parents and children leave with coats. Sometimes, we also get hat and glove donations, and toys. Anyone who’d like to help can donate coats at Colvin Cleaners or contact us directly (at 332-4130).

Q. What do you think it will take to help bring Buffalo out of its third-poorest city in the nation status?

Continuing what we’re doing. I’ll give you one example. Working with all these different types of groups over the years I’ve been at EPIC, you don’t realize the impact you have on these families. It’s always wonderful when you meet them years later. I met a young lady last year at the supermarket. She stopped me and said, “Didn’t you do the Lunch Bunch at so and so school?” The last time I saw her, her daughter was a little one. Now, her daughter is pushing the shopping cart and is 6 years old and is in school. And mom tells me, “We used to talk about you every Friday.” I was so proud of her, I hugged her. As she was walking away, she said, “Miss, and she’s the only one.” In our groups, we used to talk about, “if you can’t take care of this one, don’t try to introduce a second child. Try to be the best parent you can be before trying to introduce a second child.” Sometimes we don’t realize that they are listening.