This is a guest blog post by Romina Da Costa, PhD candidate in Education at the University of Maryland. Rosina recently visited two Coffee Coverstion sessions. For more information on CHEER's Coffee Conversation program, please visit: http://www.communitycheer.org/coffee-conversations.
The two sessions I observed were part of CHEER’s relatively new partnership with Montgomery County to promote food security. Currently, Montgomery County is drafting its first comprehensive food security plan, and the county reached out to CHEER in order to help draft this plan alongside the local community, assessing community needs and the effectiveness of programs that are already in place. The goal is to revise the plan draft and have it ready before the end of the year. This plan is to take the form of a “living document” that can be revisited and revised as new data and information are collected over the course of the next five years.
The role of CHEER at this stage of the plan is to help the county to collect data and hear the voices of the community through “listening sessions,” in which community participants are able to express their views and fill out surveys and questionnaires to help the local government understand their needs and their experiences with food security. CHEER’s Director for Long Branch Programs Vanesa Pinto’s ongoing work with parent groups at several local elementary schools allowed her to easily and seamlessly integrate these listening sessions into the meetings that she already holds with parents on a monthly or bi-weekly basis. As part of her work, Vanesa reaches out regularly to these parent groups through the “Parents’ Morning Coffee” and discusses with them issues of nutrition, health, access to medical care and their housing needs. I attended two of these sessions, one held on October 19th at Montgomery Knolls Elementary School, and the other held on October 26th at Rolling Terrace Elementary School. Each of the sessions lasted approximately 90 minutes and was held entirely in Spanish.
I really enjoyed spending time with Valeria and observing CHEER’s work at the two elementary schools that I visited. I found the experience truly educational for everyone involved, including the participants, the county representatives, Vanesa the facilitator, and myself. Personally, I learned a good deal about my local county, the population that is living here, some of the problems affecting the community, and the ways in which this very wealthy county is working to better serve some of its most marginalized members.
I feel very privileged to have found CHEER and lucky to have witnessed firsthand some of the work that this organization does. I really appreciate the extremely local focus of this organization, because it speaks to the depth of engagement and understanding necessary to truly improve and transform a community. I also feel that CHEER is a great example of a community learning program because there is no clear distinction between the teacher and learner; just as participants can learn about programs, services and their rights, CHEER and the local county government can learn about the community, its struggles and the various ways in which people leverage the resources available to them in order to face up to these challenges.