SPRINGFIELD — When the current school year began, Rebecca M. Johnson School principal Christopher Sutton literally rolled out the red carpet to welcome students. He shook everyone’s hand and began memorizing their names. He goes to every classroom, every day, to say good morning.

Sutton engages with every student, especially those that need him most. When a student looked like she was about to drop out of school, he told her he would bring her in every day, if necessary. He never had to do that because she stayed in school and now owns her own hair salon.

“It’s about creating a relationship that allows you to teach students, to have conversations around why they do things and why they don’t do things,” he told Reminder Publishing. “The biggest leverage for me is letting them know I am here to join them on their journey, as long as they want me to come along.”

Sutton is one of seven people who have received distinguished service awards from Parent Villages, a nonprofit organization in Springfield that helps families deal with trauma, said LaTonia Monroe Naylor, president and CEO of the group, which was founded six years ago.

Parent Villages connects families with resources and funding they need to pay rent, utilities, health care, legal services, flee domestic violence — virtually anything families in distress need. Naylor says the help is crucial because children suffer when parents are struggling.

“When parents are in survival mode, they cannot focus on day-to-day things,” she said. “They can’t focus on feeding their children, making sure they have a safe place to live and have clothes. They’re not showing up to open houses at school or going to parent meetings. They’re probably not even answering the phone if the school calls to say their child is having issues—not because they don’t care, but because of the circumstances they’re living in.”

Parent Villages relies on the community to help fulfill its mission, and the organization is now saying thank you to the unknow, mostly unheralded people dedicated to helping children. Sutton received the Students’ Choice Award.

Gumersindo Gomez won the Prestige Award for his work convincing children to stay in school. He visits classrooms in the city, warning students that dropping out can have a devasting impact on their finances and future.

“We explain to kids how important it is to stay in school. This helps control the dropout rate, and keeps our kids engaged in education. We also get parents involved with their kids,” he said.

After 37 years in the Army, Gomez is retiring as a staff sergeant. This one-time Springfield City Councilor is executive director of the bilingual veterans outreach centers of Western Massachusetts and president of Vietnam Veterans of America of Massachusetts.

“Our mission is to ensure our veterans’ families progress and are able to sustain themselves, to take care of their families. Having problems with their kids staying in school was one issue that the veterans were coming to me with,” he said.

Sutton said very often, when he picks up the phone, there is a former student on the other end of the line, letting him know he’s had a positive impact on their life.

“My job as a principal is to be interactive with the students, not necessarily when they hear principal they think they’re in trouble,” he said.

“If they need to be corrected, I correct them. But part of my job is letting students know, if they’re in need, they can come see me,” he continued.

Naylor founded Parent Villages with three other women. She presides over a board of eight women and one man. The non-profit receives corporate, foundation, government and private source funding.

Naylor was inspired to co-found Parent Villages because of trauma in her own life. When she was 16 years-old, she and a friend were walking through the city when she said they were attacked by “a group of boys with guns,” she said.

“The jumped on him and tried to shot him. I ended up getting shot,” she told Reminder Publishing.

“That was a life changing moment for me. I did not die and I thank God for that. That situation helped me to have a sense of gratitude that I’m here for a purpose. How do I live through my trauma, learn from it and find a way to give back to other people. That’s what I’ve been doing,” she said.

Parent Villages has helped more than 700 families since it was founded. For more information visit parentvillages.org, call 413-301-8121 or email info@parentvillages.org.

Staasi Heropoulos
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