When she had her first child, Marjorie Menestres was thousands of miles away from her closest relative in a country where she barely spoke the language.
It was a challenging time, and one that sparked in her a passion for helping parents that has driven her work as the founding director of SAFEchild, Wake County’s only child abuse prevention program.
Menestres, 61, started SAFEchild 20 years ago as its sole employee with a budget of $75,000 provided by the Junior League of Raleigh. She now oversees 16 employees and up to 300 volunteers at a self-sustaining organization with a $1.3 million budget that serves 900 families a year.
April is national Child Abuse Prevention Month, and SAFEchild will be conducting several events and fundraisers, including the Walk to Prevent Child Abuse 5K Walk on April 20.
More than 130,000 children were reported as abused or neglected in North Carolina each of the past two years, according to state statistics compiled from local social service departments. In Wake County, more than 2,000 such cases were confirmed in the fiscal year ending in July 2011, including two deaths.
Many more instances of abuse go unreported. The problem spans all social groups but is more likely to occur in families where other risk factors exist, such as a history of abuse of a parent, social isolation, or financial worries.
SAFEchild’s central focus is to prevent abuse by helping parents successfully navigate all of the pressures of child-rearing. SAFEchild offers classes and mentoring for parents and children at its offices, at schools and in homes – providing the kind of support Menestres learned firsthand is so important.
“Parenting is the most important job that we have for which we are the least prepared,” she says. “At the time we started, a parent had to hurt their child before they could get any help.”
SAFEchild’s programming has expanded steadily as Menestres and her staff seek new ways to help children.
“Marjorie has had a positive impact on the lives of countless children and families,” says former SAFEchild board chair Henry Campen, a lawyer with Parker Poe. “She has a unique gift for leadership, which she has employed to inspire and mobilize literally hundreds of volunteers and donors over the years to nurture and protect the children of Raleigh and Wake County.”
Menestres was born in Brooklyn, and raised on Long Island, where her family moved into a post-World War II suburb that had been built among former potato fields. Her father ran a successful printing business that he eventually moved to the Triangle.
In college, Menestres chose to study special education because she had done volunteer work with children who had special needs while she was in high school, following in the footsteps of her mother, who was an avid volunteer for various causes.
She went first to a small New England school, Lesley College, but she ended up transferring to the University of Florida, where she earned a degree in education and social science that would have qualified her to teach social studies.
She decided to go to Israel after graduation instead, both for adventure and to explore her Jewish heritage. She stayed a year and a half, and met the man who would become her husband.
Upon returning to the U.S., she earned her master’s degree in counseling at the University of Florida. She married soon after, and moved to Belgium, her new husband’s home country.
She had her first child while she was there, and was stung by the isolation of caring for a newborn without the help of family or friends. She resolved to help other mothers when she got the chance.
“I was really socially isolated,” she says. “I had a real need for support, and I knew that not only did I not want to feel isolated, but I didn’t want other mothers to feel that way.”
She was also impressed with the country’s health care services, which included home visits to new mothers – an approach mirrored in SAFEchild’s “Welcome Baby” program.
Menestres soon moved back to Raleigh, where she volunteered with a parent-child support group through the Women’s Center of Wake County. She also earned a second master’s degree, this time in education from N.C. State University.
As her two sons grew older, she started looking for jobs that would mesh with her desire to help parents. Her first job was at WakeMed’s MELD program, which teaches parenting skills to first-time parents and teenage mothers.
In her nine years there, Menestres says she learned a lot about program development, volunteer management and other aspects of nonprofit work. She also earned a nonprofit management certificate from Duke University during that time.
So when she saw an opening for the director of an organization aimed at preventing child abuse, Menestres was a good fit for the job.
“I hit the jackpot with this job in being able to meld my personal values into my professional life,” she says.
Classes for parents
The Junior League had done extensive research to figure out what kind of services were lacking in Wake County. Child abuse prevention rose to the top of that list.
The league provided seed money for the organization, but it was up to Menestres to prove its relevance and find other funding sources.
After three years, SAFEchild was running independently of the league. It has since moved into its own office, in a historic home on Morgan Street near Hillsborough Street. In 2011, it opened a child advocacy center where sexually abused children can receive all the services they need under one roof.
Typically, SAFEchild brings established programs to local families, such as its parenting classes, which last from 11 to 15 weeks and include information on discipline, child development, anger management and other topics. Transportation, daycare, and dinner are provided to all participants.
Its “Welcome Baby” initiative pairs new moms with mentors who come to their homes. Another program in place at 50 schools throughout the county teaches students to recognize and report abuse.
The group created its own program for court-referred abusers, because no such program existed.
Some of the parenting classes are geared for specific groups, such as teenage mothers and victims of domestic violence. But others are intended to help anyone be a better parent – the preventative approach that Menestres has long embraced.
“There’s a lot of stigma about reaching out for help, and my goal is to make reaching out for help a sign of strength,” she says.
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