VILONIA — The Parent Center in the Vilonia School District was the site of a 20th birthday party this week. There was punch, cake, parents, grandparents and celebrating.

"It’s our 20th birthday," said coordinator Jeannie Grissom, addressing one parent in attendance. With a grin, the woman told Grissom she wasn’t there to party. She had seen the sign on the old house on Highway 64, located next to the primary school, and wandered in to inquire about the offerings. A small child resting on her hip, the mother said she had recently moved to the district and had other children in school. 

"We are a resource center for parents. What is offered here is what parents have told us they need," Grissom told the mother. "We offer parenting classes, nutrition on a budget classes. We have resource materials for teaching children on all basic skills. We have Internet access. It’s a neat place to meet other parents. We have a Freebie Book Exchange Club and a lending library. You can come anytime we are open and stay as long as you like."

After a brief tour, the two women made their way to the back of the facility and continued to talk in private. During the meantime, the child was encouraged to explore a nearby playroom under the care of another employee.  

Grissom wasn’t the first center coordinator, but she has been at the center for the majority of the 20 years it has been in service. The first coordinator, Grissom said, stayed about four months before she returned to the classroom. 

As coordinator, Grissom sees her job similar to a public relations position — a liaison between the parent and the school. It’s a job, she believes, to be just as important a piece of the education puzzle as one held by anyone else in the district

You help a parent, you help a child, she said. 

"I make a difference in the life of a child through parents," Grissom said.

Her 20 years at the center as well as being a mother to three children provides her with a wealth of experiences to draw from to help other families, she said. On the other side of the coin, she also has experience working in the classroom as an aide.

Manned by Grissom and Amanda Westbrook, the center plays host to a dozen or so visitors on any given day. The parents, Grissom said, generally visit regarding academic issues or to participate in one of a half-dozen or so ongoing programs. Or, a parent might just come in to talk about discipline problems, she said. No issue with a child, she said, is beyond her scope even if she has to reach outside the district for help. 

The most participation, perhaps, is in the Prescription for Education Program providing parents a "Skill Box" of games. Westbrook is generally the one who "fills the prescription," based on the teacher’s orders.

The free book exchange program for both children and parents, according Grissom. The small computer lab allows parents to check student grades and proficiencies. 

The center in Vilonia opened prior to the 2003 state mandating requiring schools to create parenting centers, Grissom said. She said the idea was the "brainchild" of Frank Mitchell, superintendent. 

Touting the benefits, there’s only one change, she said, she would suggest and that would be a name change from Parent Center to Caregivers’ Center.

When former President Bill Clinton was in office, Grissom recalls, he referred to the Vilonia program as a "model program" during a speech to some educators.