From the News

Women’s History Month Profile – Tara Whitaker

Parents as Teachers ‘Saved my Life’

Giving Back is Her Passion: A Tale of a Once-Unhoused Mother, Who’s Helping Mothers

Pick any Saturday, and you’ll find Tara Whitaker, 33, a single mother of an 11-year-old son, among the dozens of unhoused persons gathered outside City Hall in downtown St. Louis.

She’s not there seeking assistance for herself or to protest but is instead there to advocate for relief for the region’s growing housing insecure population.

Armed with feminine hygiene products, bottled water, a list of available resources, and a kind word of encouragement, Whitaker is on a crusade to stem the tide of housing insecurity in the city and to help set people on a course of recovery, discovery, and independence.

Once unhoused herself, Whitaker uses real-life experiences to inspire others. During her formative years, she frequently darted in and out of foster care and homeless shelters.

Whitaker’s mother died when she was three years old. That forced her to live with her grandmother until she turned 10. Unfortunately, she was removed from her grandmother’s home and placed into foster care. She languished there from age 12 to 21. After leaving foster care at age 21, she became pregnant and unhoused.

Her life took a transformational turn when she met a parent educator with the Parents as Teachers home visiting program while cooking through the St. Louis Public Schools system. At the time, she was living at St. Louis Hope House, a nonprofit that partners with Parents as Teachers and provides supportive housing and child development services to unhoused citizens.

Whitaker enrolled in Parents as Teachers and ascertained the life skills needed to successfully rear her then three-year-old son, an experience that would alter the trajectory of her tumultuous life.

“Parents as Teachers gave me the knowledge I needed to be a woman and mother,” Whitaker declared during a group connection sponsored by Parents as Teachers’ Show Me Strong Families (SMSF) program. “I enrolled and stayed in the program for two years, graduated high school with a welding certificate and enrolled in cosmetology school with perfect attendance. Parents as Teachers set me on the course to do all of that and I am eternally grateful to them.”

SMSF serves families and children through personal visits in their homes and promotes parental resilience, knowledge of parenting and child development.

An affiliate of Parents as Teachers National Center, SMSF serves families living in some of the most distressed communities in the city of St. Louis and north St. Louis County. Almost 80 percent of the families served are African American and even more are low-income. One quarter of the parents enrolled in SMSF are young parents, one third are unhoused, and one quarter has low educational attainment.

Alison Gee, Parents as Teachers vice president of Government and Community Engagement, said the 40-year-old nonprofit focuses on using evidence-based research to offer the most relevant information, guidance, and tools to early childhood and education providers.

“Our program is grounded in the latest research, and our curricula support parents in promoting family well-being and the healthy development of their children,” Gee said. “We advocate for national, state, and local efforts that work to improve school readiness and life success by reaching children during the most critical, early years of life.”

Gee and other staffers make regular visits to the nation’s Capital to lobby legislators and advocate for home visiting funding and support.

Allison Kemner, Parents as Teachers’ senior vice president and chief research officer, said homelessness can harm families with young children, affecting their physical health, emotional well-being, education, and social development. Children, she said, may face instability, stress, and barriers to schooling, leading to long-term consequences like poverty and health issues.

“Urgent support, including stable housing and comprehensive services, is crucial to mitigate these impacts and promote the well-being of homeless families with children,” Kemner said, adding, “While early childhood programs can be helpful in supporting families experiencing unstable housing, we need a systems approach to really address the issue.”

With guidance from Parents as Teachers and other social services organizations, Whitaker would eventually leave the shelter and began working as an infant and toddler supervisor. Determined to help cultivate children and other moms like her, she also worked for Brightstar Christian and Sunshine Preschools and became certified as a Life Coach by the Life Coach Institute.

Whitaker currently lives in North St. Louis County with her son, Darrion, now 11 years old. For the past five years, she has led a support group on Facebook called “A Mother Helping A Mother.” The group provides resource information, intimate partner violence counseling, access to free pads, tampons and diapers, and locations of food distribution sites.

“I was called to do women’s work,” said Whitaker. “I used to work with moms who had just had babies and didn’t want to accept that their kids had (developmental) delays. I also dealt with moms dealing with housing situations, postpartum depression, and emotional and physical abuse, so I know what they’re going through.”

She credits Parents as Teachers with “saving my life,” as well as her Life Coach experiences with teaching her how to counsel women and care for her own child in a more loving way.

“I remember at Hope House helping a woman who had a black eye. She was afraid to go home for fear of getting beat up again. I gave her the food from my refrigerator,” Whitaker recalled. “I once gave a homeless woman the shoes off my feet and walked home barefooted. It made me feel good that I was able to help give them back a small part of their humanity.”

Embarking on her 34th birthday and with foster care and housing insecurity in her rearview mirror, Whitaker readily advises other young mothers to enroll in Parents as Teachers, take the information to heart, and show up to be informed and equipped.

“Coming out of foster care and being homeless, I didn’t have a mom growing up, so I didn’t know how to change diapers, or how to love or care for a child,” she said. “Parents as Teachers taught me that and I’ve passed those life lessons along to my son.”

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