Eartha Cunningham has stood on the wobbly bridge of parenthood. She’s had the sleepless nights. She knows the worry. When she talks with other parents about raising children, she admits to teetering on the line between making a difference and making a mistake.
It was her own son’s discipline problems at school that led her to Parents Anonymous of South Carolina. Founded nationally in 1969, the organization works to strengthen families and build caring communities. Through a special initiative in 2005-2009, support from The Duke Endowment expanded the program in rural South Carolina.
Through Parents Anonymous support groups, parents learn from each other’s challenges. Eartha, 50, says the program worked for her and she believed it could work for others. Already a family advocate in her community, she helped Parents Anonymous grow in Colleton County, a stressed area in the corridor of I-95.
Under her leadership, the Colleton program sprouted eight adult support groups serving more than 300 parents. They met at the Department of Juvenile Justice, a middle school, a detention center and a beauty shop.
“As the community coordinator, Eartha was the linchpin that made it happen,” says Troy Strother, the executive director at Parents Anonymous of South Carolina. “Those groups are a lot of work. But she was tenacious, energetic, focused and committed.”
Eartha puts it this way: “When I see a need, I step in. And there’s a big need in this area for this program.”
She describes a recent wave of violence in Colleton that left three people dead, including a 20-month-old toddler. Last summer, more than 130 armed officers led pre-dawn raids in neighborhoods across the county, arresting more than a dozen people. The suspects, mostly in their 20s, were linked to feuding gangs.
“With the parents that we serve, every one of them knew someone who had been touched by what happened that day,” Eartha says. “They came in with lots of questions. ‘How can I help my kids not become one of those kids?’ ‘How can I keep my kids safe?’ Everybody was worried it could happen to them.”
Eartha has known some of these families her whole life. She was born and raised in Walterboro, Colleton County’s biggest town, and still goes to the same church her parents attended.
Her own teenage years weren’t easy. She got pregnant in high school and tried to hide it from her family. “I felt like I’d be their big disappointment,” she says.
But when her parents found out, they offered only support. They encouraged her to go to college, and promised to care for the baby when she couldn’t.
“They never said, ‘Why did you?’ or ‘What were you thinking?’” she remembers. “They only said, ‘We want you to succeed.’”
The parents she meets today have the same goal for their children, and Parents Anonymous is helping them work toward it. One group helped a mother learn to feel comfortable talking to authorities on behalf of her son. Another helped a mother redefine expectations of her daughter.
“We’re giving power to parents who feel they don’t have any,” Eartha says.
And support when everything feels wobbly.
Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director of Child Care