What Would Barbara Say?

The amazing story of one woman’s dedication to helping families…
- August 16, 2021 -

WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock

When a dusting of stars illuminated the night sky, and most of Manatee County slipped into a peaceful slumber, a predictable rumble hummed from Robby’s driveway. Turning the ignition of his mother’s borrowed car, Robby rolled out each evening to work overnights at a fast-food restaurant and prove a commitment to carving out a successful life.

Stoic work ethic and drive powered Robby, despite vast adversities that cratered potholes and detours in his roadmap of life. He pushed on. He navigated his obstacles, despite not even owning a car.

Then a life-changing knock tapped on his front door. Social workers delivered the shocking news: Robby had a three-year-old son, Jaxson, who suffered and witnessed horrific physical abuse at the hands of his step-father and found refuge in foster care. Desperately longing to provide a nurturing and safe home but struggling with limited resources to chart a course of healing and development for Jaxson, Robby tossed out a life raft.

It landed in the loving hands of Barbara Brownell – a trailblazer in the field of parenting education who has dedicated her life to making resources available to all families and spotlighting the need for prevention services in our community.

“This dad could do it,” said Brownell with passion rising up in her voice. “We knew right away he could. We pulled in all the resources and would not take no for an answer. He wouldn’t give up. How could we?”

Brownell, a founding member of Parenting Matters – an organization striving to prevent child abuse in at-risk families through comprehensive parenting education and support – dedicated 20 years to the organization and impacted more than 16,000 families before retiring as program director in 2018.

A Manatee County icon and recent recipient of the Charles Clapsaddle Community Spotlight Award, Brownell forged a career as an Elementary school counselor before realizing the lack of child abuse prevention programs focused on parenting in Manatee County. With robust energy, she developed and authored programs, curricula, and trainings implemented locally by Parenting Matters, State College of Florida, Forty Carrots Family Center, Manatee County School District, and Gulf Coast Community Foundation, to name a few.

“Barbara is a brilliant counselor, parenting educator, and leader,” said Diane Weiss, Practice Manager and parenting, child development, and pediatric sleep specialist at Weiss Pediatric Care. She also happens to be Brownell’s long-time friend and colleague in the world of parenting education. “She has the ability to see the strengths in all those she touches – children, parents, colleagues, and of course friends and families – and helps each one go away with an increased sense of worth and competence. She adds humor at all the right moments to hold people up and lighten their burdens – or to just make us all laugh.”

An avid hiker and kayaker, Brownell’s tall, elegant presence demands attention. Donning bright pink lipstick, a turquoise tunic and dangling earrings, Brownell’s words roll out with articulate, deliberate speed, hinting at her magical ability to motivate and inspire those around her, especially struggling parents. The evidence lies in the oversized poster titled “What Would Barbara Say?” proudly hanging in the Parenting Matters offices and offering a snapshot of Brownell’s go-to phrases such as “Let’s Rewind,” “You can’t fill a glass with an empty pitcher,” and “How’s that working for you?”

Leaping out in navy blue font is perhaps Brownell’s strongest mantra, “We never work harder than our families.”

“In my experience, 99.9 percent of parents love their children and want to be better at their job,” said Brownell, who raised two daughters along with her husband, Scott. “Parents are committed, motivated learners. That’s not to say they all appear to be motivated learners at first. They may not have good roadmaps. We can’t blame someone for being a bad parent if they themselves are wounded with bad roadmaps.”

Brownell stresses the importance of partnering with parents and refraining from critical judgment in order to reach the family unit as a whole.

“We are experts on children in general, but the parent is the expert on their own kid,” said Brownell, who wrote a parenting advice column in the Bradenton Herald for several years and freely admitted that parenting is the hardest job. “If there was one right way to parent, there would only be one book out there.”

Echoing this philosophy, Katrina Bellemare, Executive Director of Parenting Matters, shares Brownell consistently pushes for the best practices in human services.

“For her, services must be based on relationships, respect, building on strengths (rather than pointing out weaknesses) and showing people their worth and ability to create change,” Bellemare said. “I often hear her advocate with other agencies to go beyond keeping children safe. She wants to make sure that every child is also secure and strong, able to thrive in life. She is never satisfied with leaving a family a little better off when she knows a bit more effort by our team and the community will permanently impact a family and future generations.”

Providing parenting education and serving parents of children ages 0-17, Parenting Matters rises as one of 67 accredited child abuse prevention centers nationally and is one of three in Florida. Consistently earning the highest level of accreditation, the organization offers classes in both English and Spanish, including an in-home Parent Partner program. Counselors work with an arsenal of other local organizations to ensure their families have access to vital resources such as food, mental health, counseling, and housing.

Growing up in the brutal winters of Chicago, Brownell sought out Eckerd College in sunny St. Petersburg, where she fell in love with sandy beaches, sky-skimming palm trees, and her husband, Scott. After achieving her master’s in guidance and counseling from Wake Forest University, the couple agreed to move wherever either one of them scored a job first.

Manatee County sought out Barbara during a time in the early 70s when parenting resources and counseling in the school system barely claimed a presence. She took on the position as Oneco Elementary’s very first guidance counselor and moved on to develop the first parent resource program in Manatee County at State College of Florida in 1978.

“I love this community,” said Brownell, leaning forward to express conviction. “I love Manatee County because it is small enough with businesses and residents that truly care about families. We have a community that voted on a tax referendum to help our families. I’m so proud of this community.”

Brownell co-chaired the Manatee Community Council for Children’s Task Force on Funding in 1990-1992, resulting in the tax referendum for Manatee County’s Children’s Services Advisory Board, which now provides approximately $13m annually and supports programs that benefit tens of thousands of children.

When Brownell is not plotting her next hike to Glacier National Park, you may find her gardening in the backyard where blooms of tulips and a myriad of butterfly trees and plants shade her sanctuary. She cherishes long lunches catching up with friends. Rolling eagerly off the computer screen, wise words from her Parenting Matters blog instantly draw in any reader. When the long shadows of afternoon stretch across her home, Brownell practices yoga and meditates – a discipline she inherited from her mother, who taught yoga and practiced until two weeks before she passed away at age 98.

“I come from a family of helpers,” said Brownell, who recalled a memory of creating to-do lists on the fridge for her eager-to-help-out father when her kids were little. “I have great roadmaps. I didn’t have to struggle out of bad things. Our family is a team, and we work together as a team.”

Perhaps Brownell’s teamwork philosophy inspired her to swoop in and help when her family needed her the most: e-learning through the pandemic. Four days a week, she, along with Scott, navigated the wild west of remote learning with her grandkids. While her husband tackled third grade, she took on Kindergarten, mixing in raising monarchs in the backyard with four hours of screen-time learning.

“This was the hardest thing I have done, and I put a lot of pressure on myself,” said Brownell, who creatively had her five-year-old granddaughter gain math facts by counting change in her wallet. “I appreciate what teachers do now more than ever. I don’t know how their teachers were always so fun, upbeat, and positive during e-learning. There could be chaos going on with technology not working, yet they would still say in a friendly voice, ‘Friends, someone’s not muted. Can we mute now.’ I was so impressed with parents and teachers and the kids.”

While e-learning left Brownell in awe of her collective community, she may not realize how many individuals she has inspired throughout her career. Weiss recalls meeting Brownell in the 1980s when an instant friendship bloomed as the two pushed each other to grow in the field of parenting education.

“We wrote parenting education curriculum together, did training through Sarasota and Manatee counties, and presented our work at national conferences,” said Weiss. “Whenever I was confronted with a professional dilemma, whether it was about a specific family or issue or a social or political concern, it was Barbara who I would turn to. That has never changed. She will always be on my auto-dial list as a dear friend and an admired colleague.”

While Brownell has counseled many families, Robby and Jaxson tugged at her heart, and she advocated far beyond parenting education for the father and son.

Parenting Matters helped secure furniture, clothing, services, and toys; however, Brownell knew Robby desperately need reliable transportation.

“This is not something we have ever done at Parenting Matters,” Bellemare said. “But Barbara just knew that would be the thing they needed to improve their circumstances.”

Focused and determined, Brownell knocked on the door of Manatee Community Foundation, where Executive Director Susie Bowie dove in and connected Brownell with three local philanthropists ready to help. They not only paid for the car and insurance but also shopped several dealerships to locate one just right for Robby.

“Barbara has said time and time again, ‘We will not give up on this family; we can’t – this child is going to make it,’” said Bellemare.

On a recent office visit, Robby, who now works a higher-paying day job, said to Barbara, “I could never thank you enough for all of the work you have done for us.”

Barbara quickly replied, “We never work harder than our families. You are doing so much more.”

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