Vickey Siggers is a star in the Boston Basics firmament. She coordinates the Boston Family Engagement Network, Mattapan Hugs and Play groups, and the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition. She also conducts Welcome Baby visits and trains a cadre of local residents as Parent Partners. Vickey is based at the Boston Family Engagement Network and is a proud grandmother to her four-year-old grandson. Today Vickey talks to us about how the Basics affects her life and work, personally and professionally.
Vickey Siggers with her 4-year-old grandson. Photo Credit: Vickey Siggers
Welcome Vickey! When did you first hear about the Boston Basics?
Being part of the Boston Family Engagement Network, we were invited to the Boston Basics launch about three years ago.
There were a lot of similarities with some of the work that we were already doing. So, I found that it was a really useful tool. The team had lots of information, handouts, and I especially loved the videos.
What did you love about the videos?
A few of the scenes were filmed in Ryan Park, which is a place I take my grandson. I loved that they included people who lived in the community, some of whom I knew. It made me feel comfortable sharing the videos with our families.
That's powerful to be able to show families locally-produced resources and Boston residents practicing the Basics. You mentioned there were some similarities with the work you were already doing. What do you mean?
Talk, Read, Play is a campaign, sponsored by Countdown to Kindergarten with similar ideas, such as emphasizing to parents that they are their child’s first teacher. They also help families understand the importance of engaging with their children.
I never want to make parents feel like they are doing something wrong. I always want to make sure I am celebrating what they are doing, as well as offering other options to hopefully make their lives a little easier.
Some moms have only been here [in Boston] for a few months and don’t have anyone to go to for support. My job is to help them celebrate being a parent.
In doing this, I’ve had to learn about different cultures and how others parent differently.
Can you talk about some of the ways culture plays into your work with families?
That was something I had to learn. I really had to step back and look at myself because I couldn’t understand the challenges some parents had when it came to engaging with their child, in ways that recognized their incredible power as the child’s first teacher. After talking with several families, I realized that they were not raised like that, and it’s not how they do things in their culture.
For example, I found that some people with Caribbean backgrounds view teachers as trusted guides, similar to priests and nuns. That means they see their responsibility as parents as more focused on clothing and feeding their child rather than “teaching.”
My goal is to help parents understand that it’s okay to be down on the floor with their child, reading or playing with them. A lot of parents didn’t know that they can start reading to their child when the child is in the belly. They looked at me like I was crazy.
Over time, I explain that reading helps a child’s vocabulary grow. That helps them to be school ready. I explain that we don’t want our children to be behind. We don’t want them to struggle. We want their academic experience to be a positive one that they will enjoy.
Since most of your families come from cultural backgrounds outside the U.S., how long does it take them to be receptive to the Basics?
Getting families to come to our playgroups is an important first step.
Storytime at the Mattapan Playgroup. Photo Credit: Vickey Siggers
We may get a referral or I may personally see someone at the laundromat or grocery store. I then give them information on the services we offer like Welcome Baby, which is a home visit where we bring families a bag full of diapers, books, and other items for their child.
As a follow-up, we invite them to the playgroup. Some families don’t come, but a lot do. And once families visit, they keep coming back every week. While they are there, we are constantly using elements of Boston Basics.
Which one stands out for you?
Maximizing love and managing stress is all about self-care. So, we started doing baby yoga every other month with the families. It was supposed to be the mom or dad doing yoga with the baby, but most of the time it’s just the parent needing the yoga. (laughs)
When parents take care of themselves, all the other things—reading, pointing, and singing—become more enjoyable.
Photo Credit: Mattapan Playgroup Facebook Page with permission from Vickey Siggers
Yes! Self-care is super important and I'm happy you prioritize that with your families! What does “Read and Discuss Stories” look like at your group?
At our Friday playgroup, most of the families that come are Haitian, and their English is limited. One recent Friday, we were reading and the parents started reading along. Since we had read the book so many times, the families were able to recognize the words. The person who was reading actually stopped and started pointing to the words so that the parents could read them to their children.
I was so happy to see that, I cried. That showed me this work is not just about child development. I saw our playgroups help parents develop new skills as well.
I ordered extra copies of the book so that families could take it home and continue to read it to their children.
Wow! Talk about impact. That would make me cry too.
Another Basic we incorporate is singing, but when I would sing nursery rhymes, families didn’t join in. These were families that spoke English. Finally, one of the moms told me, “We don’t know these nursery rhymes.” And I said, “Oh!”
I assumed families from Haiti, Jamaica, and other Caribbean countries knew the nursery rhymes, but they didn’t. I created a little booklet so that they could take it with them and sing the songs at home.
Even with count, group, and compare, I’ve learned to take that concept and turn it into something that is understandable for our families. And once I explain the importance of the Basics, they embrace it.
It's nice that you're able to incorporate the Basics using American culture. Are you able to use elements of Caribbean culture when implementing them?
Yes! We’ve been learning some Caribbean nursery rhymes as well, like “Uncle Bouki” from Haiti.
The Mattapan playgroup is growing and I often get compliments like, “Vickey, the playgroup is really good.” And I usually respond, “Thank you for the compliment, but the reason why it’s doing well is because it’s needed in the community.”
Families at the Mattapan Playgroup. Photo Credit: Vickey Siggers
You are doing a great job! While the Basics are offered in different languages, I appreciate how you mold them to fit your families' needs. You mentioned you have a grandson. I'm curious to know how you use the Basics with your own family?
My grandson is 4, soon to be 5. Exploring through movement and play is my favorite with him, especially at this age. When he’s with me, I make sure we walk down to Ryan Park, even if it’s just for one hour. We also take advantage of the Greenway (the walking path). We stop, look, and point at things. We count the leaves and compare their colors.
My grandson is very articulate. We often have conversations with him, making sure to introduce new words and ideas.
We have discussions about the books we read. Goodnight Gorilla is one of his favorites. We read it many times! When I read and ask questions, he’ll say, “Mimi, could you just please read the story?” (laughs)
I just go with the flow. But what’s interesting is that every time we look at the pictures we see something different. He said, “I never saw those bananas hanging from that cage.” And I said, “Neither did I.”
As a grandparent, it’s so different. I never knew love like this (laughs). Before, I knew you were supposed to read to your children and take them to the park, but to now understand all the developmental reasons why really brings it full circle for me. As a grandparent, I get a second chance at this (laughs).
Thank you Vickey! Your grandson is so blessed to have you and our community is blessed to have you too!
Aww. Thank you!
The Basics are offered in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole to meet the language needs of our families. Visit our website to get our free online toolkit for your community. You can also follow the Basics on Facebook, Twitter, and sign up to receive our newsletter. To connect with Vickey Siggers and learn more about her work in the community, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview was conducted by Dominique, blogger behind DommiesBlessed.