Tyra Damm was widowed in 2009 when her husband Steve died of a cancerous brain tumor at 40 years old. Since the time of his diagnosis, Tyra has written a beautiful and penetrating blog about their journey as a family, including her transition to single parenthood. She also writes related columns for The Dallas Morning News.
Since today is National Single Parent Day, we called on Tyra to share some practical ideas about how camp and class directors could broaden their reach to children of single parents.
The Logistics of Kids Activities
Many camps and enrichment classes pose logistical challenges for single-parent families. To take advantage of these programs, families usually need more flexibility in transportation, scheduling, and income than single parents often have available. Yet their kids can uniquely benefit from those enrichment experiences (while also deepening and diversifying the experiences of others!).
“Any enrichment opportunity is great, but it’s especially good for kids of single parents,” says Tyra, single mom of 11-year-old Katie and 15-year-old Cooper. “My kids only hear my voice so much of the time. I really love for them to hear from someone else.”
As a fourth-grade teacher, Tyra also understands the challenges educators face in supporting families of all kinds. Here are some of her ideas:
6 Ways to Help Parents
Do your best to make logistics flexible.
One way you can quickly broaden your reach is to consider the timing of your program. “A lot of camps are not accessible because the timing doesn’t accommodate a single-parent schedule,” Tyra says. Many parents work full time, plus the commute. For example, a summer camp that offers instruction for only 90 minutes per day probably won’t work, Tyra says. “It has to be worth the logistical challenges. Care provided before and after the class for a nominal fee goes a long way.”
Ask for pertinent family information.
Find an expedient way to gain information about the family’s circumstances. Some programs seek this kind of information on enrollment forms. A question on the form might be, “What can you tell me about your family life or background that would help me serve your child better?” or, “What challenges has your child faced?” Another idea might be passing out an index card at an information meeting and asking parents to answer a question like this.
A divorce or death of a family member could deeply affect the child’s enrichment or camp experience. But even a chronic illness or loss of a pet could challenge the child. Tyra says, “The more teachers know about a family situation, the better equipped they are to help that family.”
Seek out communication preferences of single parents.
“With divorced family situations, I want to know how they like to communicate,” Tyra says. Who should receive routine emails or other parent communications? Which parent would prefer to be contacted under special circumstances, like incidents of misbehavior? Pick-up information is also helpful, and sometimes critical. What is the child’s routine schedule with a non-custody parent? Who is authorized to pick up the child from the program?
Be watchful when it comes to sensitive issues.
Sometimes, the actual content at camp or in class could touch on issues in a child’s life. In the classroom, Tyra reads the novel Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo, and the storyline deals with betrayal in a marriage. “The sensitivity issue is huge,” Tyra says. “I’ve always been up front with teachers at the beginning of the year, ‘I don’t expect you to adjust the curriculum for my child, but I’d like to know if they’re reading a book where a parent dies.”
“As a teacher, I keep my eyes on the kids who I know have experienced something similar,” Tyra says. “But I also worry about the kids I don’t know about.”
A related issue has to do with language, she says. “Never assume that kids have both parents at home.” Instead of saying “Take this home to your mom and dad,” it’s “mom or dad,” or maybe even “mom, dad, or grandma.”
Be upfront about any additional fees or expenses.
Whether it’s special gatherings, gear, supplies, or volunteerism, do your best to be clear before enrollment about your requests beyond the program itself and the initial fee. “Single parents usually have less access to ready income, so once you’ve paid a fee, you don’t want added expenses that you weren’t expecting,” Tyra says. “As a child of divorced parents, I can remember feeling afraid to go home and tell Mom, ‘By the way, I have to dress up tomorrow.’” If any extra time or expense is requested, single parents are often at a disadvantage.
If an added expense is unavoidable, send an email that says something like, “If money is tight right now, please let us know,” Tyra says.
Provide scholarships that make sense for your recipients.
Covering half or even the full cost of a program doesn’t mean a family will be able to swing it. Whether parents are applying for scholarships or selected for a special gift, make sure they have all of the resources needed to accept the scholarship. By asking questions about scheduling, transportation, and expenses, you’ll gain a better understanding about the viability of your scholarship offer.
Overall, camp and class directors should never underestimate the power of their interactions with kids in single-parent homes, Tyra says. “As a teacher, I realize that when I hug a child, it may be the only hug the child gets that day because they’re living with Grandma and she’s had a busy week.”
That insight alone is enough to inspire a broader reach for any children’s program, for kids from any type of family.