Sept. 23 2015 12:54 AM

Willow Tree Family Center offers help to Lansing parents

Willow Tree Family Center offers help to Lansing parents

Willow Tree Family Center, which aims to help families through “pregnancy, birth and beyond,” began as a way to connect overwhelmed parents with resources in the community.

“We had a group of women who didn’t know where to go for these resources,” said Nicole Greiter, founder and president of Willow Tree Family Center.

The main thrust of the nonprofit’s efforts are its support groups. It began three years ago with a single support group for mothers. Fast forwarding to the present, the group offers 24 support groups for parents. The groups aim to help parents with the day-to-day struggles of pregnancy and parenting, as well as specific situations like postpartum depression or loss of a pregnancy.

The groups are still mostly geared towards mothers, but some groups — like the recently launched Brew & Babies group — are trying to bring more fathers into the mix. The bimonthly Brew & Babies event offers fathers a chance to bond and discuss parenting issues over a beer or two.

The support group structure is important to Greiter’s vision. Rather than swooping in to be a savior, Willow Tree Family Center tries to strengthen the community from within.

“Those of us who run it also use the services,” Greiter said. “There’s trust there. These are your friends and neighbors.”

Greiter said many young parents are intimidated by physicians — or even other family members — and are afraid to admit their struggles with parenting. Some parents, especially in low-income homes, are afraid that seeking help might trigger a visit from Child Protective Services.

“Willow Tree is a neutral place where you can get information on anything,” she said. “There’s no agenda.”

“Everything you say in the group stays in the group. It’s a safe place,” added Gaëlle Cassin-Ross.

Cassin-Ross attends support groups at the center and also leads a French immersion class for babies. She believes that media portrayals of parenthood also lead to unrealistic expectations for parenthood.

“The media always depicts parenthood as joyful,” Cassin-Ross said. “You need people to tell you that what you are going through is normal.”

Greiter believes the current culture of parenting places unfair expectations on parents. From the latest parenting fads to Baby Einstein to educational cartoons, parents are bombarded with products promising to give their children a developmental edge.

“There’s so much competition to be the best parent, to be perfect,” Greiter said. “When you face adversity, you’re afraid to talk about it."

The center also acts as an informational hub, connecting parents with the various resources available in the community.

“When they have a baby, parents are getting most of the information from their physician, who may not be aware of all the resources,” Greiter said. “That’s very limiting.”

While most activities take place at the center’s office at 3333 S. Pennsylvania Ave., some programs are designed to reach out into the surrounding community. A rural moms group in Dansville offers support for non-city-dwelling parents, and a new Flourishing Families program offers in-home parent mentoring. The Flourishing Families program is aimed at helping low-income families who Greiter describes as “on the bubble” — needing assistance, but not qualifying for government assistance programs.

“They still need support in the home,” said Greiter.

The center also puts on special events like its annual Baby Fair, giving parents a chance to connect with local care providers. Exhibitors include everything from pediatricians and midwives to lactation consultants and preschool teachers.

All of the center’s programs are free and are supported through donations and grants. The group’s biggest fundraiser, the Third Annual Soiree, will be Saturday at the Radisson in Lansing. The $70 ticket price includes dinner, dancing, an open bar and live and silent auctions.

Willow Tree Family Center operates on a tight budget and doesn’t spend much on advertising or promotion.

“Most of it is word of mouth,” Greiter said.

It must be working. Last year, Willow Tree Family Center served 690 attendees across its array of services. So far this year, Greiter said, the center has served 760 attendees and she hopes to double last year’s total by the end of the year.

Third Annual Soiree

6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26 $70/$525 table of up to 8 Radisson Lansing 111 N. Grand Ave., Lansing (586) 806-9823,