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The Birth and Baby Steps of PEPS

New parents had little support in Seattle, and a small group of volunteers worked hard to change that.

By Shawna Gamache

Third PEPS Group
Vicki (back row, left) and Lisa's PEPS group

Lisa's PEPS Group (1984)

PEPS Groups at Woodland Park (1984)

1984 PEPS Groups Woodland Park
PEPS party at Woodland Park (1984)

1984 PEPS Moms
PEPS Moms wearing original t-shirts (1984)

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Lisa Allen vividly remembers preparing for the birth of her first daughter 33 years ago in Seattle. It was a very exciting time for childbirth, she said, with Lamaze classes sweeping the country and parents taking a more active role in childbirth.

Lisa Allen vividly remembers preparing for the birth of her first daughter 33 years ago in Seattle. It was a very exciting time for childbirth, she said, with Lamaze classes sweeping the country and parents taking a more active role in childbirth.

But it wasn’t exciting afterward, she said. Her childbirth class met once after the babies were born, and then parents were on their own. There were few resources for new Seattle parents.

Lisa is a former high school teacher and she eventually joined a babysitting co-op, which became her support group. But it wasn’t enough.

“I’m very emotional about it it was very difficult. I remember thinking, very distinctly, ‘It's not supposed to be like this.’”

A few years later, Lisa had a chance to change that when she became one of the first volunteers for a new group aimed at supporting new parents.

Lisa was one of seven initial volunteers who met together for months to hammer out the PEPS model.

The group was led by Mary Ellen O’Keeffe and stemmed from a federal grant aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect, as well as isolation in early parenthood.

“There wasn't anything like it in Seattle at the time,” said Mary Ellen, who served for seven years as the PEPS founding director and is currently Interim President of North Seattle Community College. “We got input from other programs across the countrywe looked at their programs and picked things we thought would work for Seattle.”

The group met in tiny borrowed offices at Seattle Central Community College. “We could barely all fit in the offices,” Lisa said. “We just kept pounding on it and it kept growing, because it was so important and it was so needed.”

One core belief was that the program should be for all parents not a certain targeted group.

“Mary Ellen insisted that all parents needed help and support in the early days of parenting,” Lisa said. “PEPS was supposed to be for all parents who wanted to attend, not just parents who were struggling.

Lisa found herself leading the third PEPS group ever in January of 1984.

She dropped her three young daughters off with a friend, and left her door unlocked. When she got home, seven women and their babies were waiting in her living room.

Vicki Smolke was one of those seven mothers. She had been a special education instructor before the birth of her first son, Matthew, but she said parenthood was overwhelming for her in the early months. She remembers a five-day stretch when her husband changed all of newborn Matthew’s diapers because she didn’t feel like she could do it.

“I think I'm a fairly confident person and yet I really had very little confidence in myself as a parent,” Vicki said. “I was overwhelmed thinking about how anyone could possibly do it.”

Vicki found that PEPS meetings were just what she needed.

When you have a volunteer leader, a parent who has recently gone through this experience themselves rather than an expert, it feels different,” she said. “I just felt so fortunate to have someone in my life who really understood me and who was there for our group.”

Vicki and another mother from that early group, Phyllis Iacono, were motivated to volunteer as group leaders. They led their first few groups, which met for 6 months at that time, with their babies in backpacks. Later, they scheduled group meetings so that they could trade off watching each other’s toddlers.

“I just remember thinking it was quite a responsibility” to be a group leader, said Vicki. “I remember so vividly how excited I was that we were going for professional development at Seattle Central Community College.”

Vicki and Lisa now work together at Bellevue College in early childhood development, where Lisa is now the director of parent education. Vicki has served on the PEPS Board of Directors from 2011-2013 and continues to advise PEPS with her work on the Program Committee.

"The basic model of PEPS, training a volunteer leader to meet new parents in their community as a peer and not an expert, was unique and very deliberate," said Mary Ellen.

“The PEPS model, where new parents come together and share new information, really validates parents’ own intuitiveness,” said O’Keeffe. “Parents can gain more confidence in their own practices, and they realize that there isn't always one right way to do something.

Relying on volunteers allowed PEPS to reach more parents and was innovative. Sandra Wallace, an early PEPS staff member who was director of volunteer training at Seattle Children’s, was a big advocate for that approach.

“I had never heard of that happening before to the extent that PEPS was doing it.” Lisa said.

Mary Ellen says that PEPS works and touches many parents long after the newborn period is over.

“It met the immediate need of parents, but there are some groups still meeting years later,” she said. “It didn't just end after 6 months, and that's something very powerful too.”

Lisa’s oldest daughter, Olivia, had her first child almost a year ago, and joined a PEPS group. Her group is still meeting.

“The fact that PEPS is still here and thriving 30 years later is amazing,” Lisa said. “The one thing that has not changed over years is the need for support.”

About the Author

Shawna GamacheShawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter and co-founder of the local blog Moms Alive. She is mama to Ruby (2) and Quinn (3). Her PEPS group still meets every other week.

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