Military Mom

For one North Carolina mother, being in the military was a challenge for her and her children.

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Military mom Romaine Barnett and her daughter Shaina

Romaine Barnett joined the Navy in 1988 immediately after high school. To her, it was the perfect way to pay for college. But joining the military also meant being separated from her two-year-old daughter Shaina. “My idea was that I was going to go to college and I was going to get my daughter so that I could be her mom,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave her with my mother.”

The Goldsboro, N.C., native was initially sent to Orlando, Fla., for boot camp. She could not bring Shaina with her, and, in fact, had to sign over custody rights to her mother. “I don’t know if it’s different now, but back then in order to join you couldn’t have dependents if you were a single parent,” she said.

From there, she went to air traffic control school in Tennessee. Shaina joined her a few months later. But throughout her 11-year military career, Barnett was forced to leave Shaina and her younger brothers with family members as her assignments and duties changed.

Barnett sat down with One Voice to discuss the challenges that she faced as a military mom, as well as the strength that it took for Shaina (who now works as an editorial specialist at National PTA) and her younger brothers to handle the life being military children.

One Voice: How did your service in the military affect your children?

Romaine Barnett:   Shaina was always a pretty resilient little girl, and you know, she was big. She was a big girl. But it wasn’t until I had my second baby, her brother Corey. By that time, I was on a ship. So I had already left aviation and had gone onto a ship. That’s called Black Shoe Navy at that point. That means you’re going over to the Naval side where you’re actually out to sea…I actually had to wean him. I was breastfeeding him and I had to wean him at like – was he four months? He might have been three months. Because I had to go out to sea…My baby was four months old. It was devastating…

One Voice: How did it affect you as a mother?

Romaine Barnett: I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of how it affected them until recent years…I remember when I was in Malaga, Spain, for Thanksgiving. Oh, I’m going to cry. I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I was standing on the street corner back then at a pay phone because they had – every time you pull into port if you’re on a ship, there’s a huge pay phone like depot thing. Okay? So you pull in and as soon as you get off the ship there’s this whole row of payphones. But I remember I couldn’t get a payphone, and it was the holidays, because everybody there was calling home. There was one phone in the middle of the street. There was nobody there. So I get on the phone and I call my family. They were on the phone excited, and I literally – I just fell right there on the corner. I melted. It was devastating for me because they were just growing up and laughing and having Thanksgiving and I’m on a pier in Malaga, Spain.

One Voice: So was it easier for you to try not to think about what was happening back at home?

Romaine Barnett: When they’re really little they don’t really get it. But when they get older, they’re like, “Well, when is mommy going to be home?” And it was always really hard for me to think about what their life was like without me, because I wanted to be the person that saw them do the walking and helped them with everything that was happening in their lives. So it was challenging for me. It was always hard, always hard.

One Voice: How did you cope with being away?

Romaine Barnett: Sometimes, it would take a few days to kind of refocus. But then, after you’ve done it once or twice, you just see this as your life. You start wearing masks, and that’s how you function. That’s what I did. I learned how to compartmentalize. I had to or I wouldn’t make it. I was in a man’s world, and that’s what they’re good at. So I learned how to do what they did. I was over there and I’d focus on that. So it’s kind of masculine, I was told. I knew how to do it, because in order to get something done, sometimes you have to kind of cut all of that off so you can focus on getting it done.

One Voice:   What can PTA parents and teachers do to help children, who have a mom or dad in the military, to better cope? What can be done?

Romaine Barnett:   Well, I would say, number one, again, that other factor of knowing that little Timmy or Jana has a parent away. Have a specific board or things in the office or in the classrooms that represent a military mom or dad. Maybe have a poster and the children whose moms and dads are in the military. There’s a pride thing that goes with the kids. It would build their esteem to say, “My mommy is one of them. My daddy is one of them.”  So it’s not that my mom or dad is not at home. They’re out on mission in the military. That kind of gives the child a boost.

One Voice:   Should counselors be available to be able to talk to military children if they’re going through issues?

Romaine Barnett: Having counselors available is always a good idea. I think for the kids, it’s just a matter of identifying what the need is, what the real issue is. That would be with any kid, and then you can kind of pinpoint it. Being able to communicate with them as a counselor to say that it’s okay that you feel bad because mommy’s not here is helpful. They have to be taught how to process their emotions. A lot of times they don’t even know what they’re processing. They just know that I’m sad because mom is not here. So you say, “Okay, you’re sad. It’s okay to be sad, but know that mommy is good. Mommy is going to be okay.” And even make it a celebration periodically. Write a letter to that person’s mom or dad, and the teacher actually takes the responsibility to send that letter off. And, even if the parent may or may not respond, request that they send something back to the classroom.


From Foster Child to Fortune 50 Executive

Steve Pemberton survived abusive adolescent years. Now, he gives insight on what PTAs can do to help other children in the system.

Pemberton picbb (2)Steve Pemberton admits that he should have told his story some 20 years ago. But sometimes recounting pain is as tough as living through it.

The married father of three now lives a blessed life as a Fortune 50 company executive in Chicago. But behind his storybook exterior is the tragic tale of a tattered foster kid from Massachusetts, a forgotten child, a ward the State labeled as “at-risk” before proceeding to shuffle him from one suspect family to the next, each taking him in more for money than love.

In the sprint to achieve his current success, the horror of his past has always given chase. Doing right by his family helped distance, but not shake, the childhood memories of physical beatings and mental abuse that included everything from being forced to rummage through trash cans for dinner to hiding books under the stairs because his foster parents told him to stop reading so much.

It would eventually take talk—not walk—therapy to finally free Pemberton’s heels, heal his pain, and give him the time and space to help others.

ChanceInTheWorld_HighResCMYK (2)“Becoming a husband and a father, my children were filled with questions about my mother and father. Where were they? What happened to them? One question which led to another question, and another question,” says Pemberton, who wrote the book “A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home” (Harper Collins). “So I felt like it was a story that I needed to get down for them. But I also needed to get it down for others in the same situation. I didn’t need to get it down for me as much. Because, while I do believe that you need to be healed, the healing for me came from building my own family.”

Currently the chief diversity officer and divisional vice-president for Walgreens Corporation, Pemberton, by all accounts, is living a very different life than the one initially envisioned for him. He has become recognized as one of the nation’s leaders on matters of diversity and inclusion. Pemberton’s story of triumph over adversity has lessons in ti for anyone interested in the well-being of foster children, especially teachers, parents and counselors who have direct contact with them during their formidable years.

Pemberton was taken from his mother at one-and-a-half years old and placed in the foster care system. “A few days before Christmas,” he tells One Voice. “I never saw her again.”

He stresses that there are many wonderful families who adopt children every day, and many families who love and care for that child, for a lifetime. “But, unfortunately I didn’t find one of those families,” he says. “Or, one of those families didn’t find me.”

Pemberton says that he ended up with families who subjected him to “every kind of challenge, obstacle that you can imagine.”

He felt like a forgotten child. “There’s really no other way to describe it…,” says Pemberton, who later found out that his mother battled drug addiction and died while he was in foster care. “I was completely forgotten about.”

He says that he spent much of his adolescence in fear of what was going to happen on a daily basis. Many times he was beat, cursed, and told that he was a mistake and no one wanted him. “They tell me that no one’s particularly concerned about me, and, everything I experienced on a daily basis affirmed that for me,” he says. “There were no teachers stepping in, no social workers trying to encourage you, and you have your foster parents telling you that you are the problem.”

He said that when he didn’t get love from his foster families, he sought love from social workers and teachers. “Anyone who I believed and hoped would see me as more than this broken boy,” he says. “But, none of them did.”

He admits that most children would simply accept their situation, give in to the notion that they somehow deserved to have a parentless life being physically and emotionally abused by heartless people. But he chose a different route.  “My response to that was to fight back. Fight back through doing well in the classroom, I couldn’t fight them. I was too small to fight them physically. But I could fight them mentally with my love of reading and performance in the classroom. And, as a result it gave me self-esteem. It gave me vision. And, it gave me purpose.”

A relentless reader, Pemberton says that he has no idea the number of books he read as a child. But he does remember a woman, Mrs. Levin, who would bring him books that her children were no longer reading. She brought them in boxes to me,” he says. “She brought them, at least once a month.”

He would have to sneak away to read because his foster parents would yell at him if he was reading rather than doing chores around the house. “They were terribly violent people. And, they had these crazy rules, so I would hide under the stairs to read,” he says. “I loved mysteries. I read Alfred Hitchcock and Encyclopedia Brown, and Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Watership Down was my favorite. Lord of the Rings. They all brought me to different worlds that would move me on a daily basis from the realities of the experience that I was in. In my mind’s eye, I was a conqueror. I was a discoverer. I was an explorer. I was an astronaut. I was a detective. I was all these things that came to me through reading.”

None of his teachers knew of his situation. But since publishing his story, “I hear from them often, and with great apology because they suspected,” Pemberton says. “After reading the book, they realized that their suspicions were far worse than anything that they actually suspected was going on.  And, so what I hear from them is, ‘How come I didn’t see?’ It’s very emotional for them, because I think they look back and see that they could have stopped it all. They could have stopped it. And, because they struggled to act, they didn’t.”

Pemberton says that it is important for child advocates to understand that these kids didn’t create their situation. “They didn’t ask for it. They just showed up. And they showed up through an avenue that has been wrought with peril and difficulty. And, the only question you can really have is, ‘What can I do to help provide you a pathway?’ At PTAs, what I would do is surround that child with a different vision. Because, that is what you need more than anything else. The situation and circumstance that they are either in or have come from, you can’t change that. But, you can provide a different vision, a different pathway.” On a more practical level, we can certainly become special advocates for foster children, or, if it’s within your heart and your means and your ability to adopt, then that is something that you can do as well.”

Because of his good grades in school, Pemberton went on to receive a scholarship to attend Boston College. After going so long not talking about his past, he says that he now cherishes his role as an advocate for foster children. He says that PTAs play a vital role in helping foster children, especially youth that may be in less than desirable situations. ”You can do something. You can act on your suspicions. You can bring a box of books. You can adopt a child. You can become a volunteer. I mean, there is so much that you can do,” he says. “You are not powerless to do anything, particularly through organizations and communities around that child.”

Pemberton says that he hears from foster children every day, thanking him for telling his story, and for helping them understand that they do not have to accept labels or their present condition. “They don’t focus, actually, on the tragedy of my story, because they have their own stories of abandonment and suffering,” he says. “They want to know how you overcame it. What did you do to get through it?”

He said that, while it took some 20 years longer than it should, he is happy that his story is finally out there and his book is getting so much attention. “I wanted the story to get out there, not for the book sales. I’m an executive at a Fortune 50 company, so I’m doing okay,” he says. “But, it’s more for others who [read my story and] say, ‘Okay, I’m going to survive this because he did. He’s telling me it’s possible.’”

Kevin Chappell is a senior editorial manager at National PTA in Alexandria, VA.

The NEW Our Children Has Something for Everyone

OC_OctNov2013 Cover Have you checked out the NEW Our Children magazine?

If you haven’t, you are in for a wonderful surprise. More pages. Bigger names. Better features. More engaging and informative news you can use. National PTA has refocused the magazine to cover topics of interest to PTA leaders and members.

In the new October/November issue, Modern Family star Julie Bowen graces the cover, opening up about her son’s battle with anaphylaxis. Calling the severe, life-threatening allergic reaction resulting from exposure to allergens “a mother’s worst nightmare,” Bowen is pushing for national awareness, and praises National PTA’s campaign aimed at ensuring that schools are up to speed on how to diagnose and treat the condition.

Working with Pfizer, National PTA has been on the forefront pushing for proper anaphylaxis care in school, as well as preventative steps that should be taken to lessen the likelihood of an attack. In this issue of Our Children, we send out a call-to-action for our more than four million members to question school administrators about anaphylaxis care and prevention at their school.

Also in this issue, National PTA unveils its partnership with the NFL aimed at youth sports safety. A cornerstone to the partnership is the PTA-led Back-to-Sports nights to discuss concussion prevention, hydration techniques and proper sports mechanics.

And if that wasn’t enough, learn about National PTA’s new Fire Up Your Feet initiative; take part in a discussion on whether or not safe rooms in school are practical, and learn why the PTA members need to advocate to continue recess at school.

If it’s about educational success of all children, it’s in Our Children.


The Urban Child: Bhati Bowl, Dance & Tea Parties

Engaging the Urban Child: Queens Community PTSA has turned up the excitement, and turn out parents

It’s called the Queens Community PTSA. And as one of the few PTAs in New York City, it has become a model of how to effectively engage parents in urban communities. Camille Doherty has led the PTSA, which was chartered in 2009. She says that while all parents have an interest in taking an active role in their child’s education, tapping into that interest with fun and informative programs and activities has been the key to increasing membership and involvement. Doherty talked to One Voice about the ways the Queens Community PTSA has engaged the urban child.


One Voice: The Queens Community PTSA is not school based, but represents dozens of schools throughout Queens. Why has it been so successful?

Camille Doherty: Queens has been a very difficult nut to crack in terms of getting parental involvement…With the Queens Community PTSA, a lot of it has been the ability to have a grounded group outside of the schools where parents share a common value system…The PTA is a natural fit because you have a community of parents, and a network of parents, and a history of parents that actually tie into the struggle of wanting to do better by their kids regardless of the economic background or your location.


One Voice: What are events have had the most parent involvement?

Camille Doherty: We had our “Dream to Read” program, which will take place again this year in January, Martin Luther King’s Jr. birthday weekend. And we’ve had our back-to-school forums. We’ve sponsored a garden through the help of New York City, the Children’s Community Garden. We have a tutoring program, which is open to the community. Our Educational Ministry is a team of educators that want to make sure the parents are connected. We do parent training on how to advocate for your children and when to recognize that you should advocate for your child…We’ve picked up a strong following from a lot of our dance schools…We’ve done it with the sisterhood and the brotherhood where we have young parents in smaller sessions, and we sneak in discussions on education and what’s going on in the school and who’s doing what. But it’s done in a non-threatening type of atmosphere.


One Voice: You have received a lot of attention from your Bhati Bowl. How did that come about?

Camille Doherty: The Bhati Bowl is where our core base of membership came from. The parents loved it, and came back every week. That’s what really jumpstarted our PTA. Bhati is the Swahili word for “God’s gift.” It was a five-month program where the children learned traditional dancing like the Cha-Cha and the Merengue. We had about 26 kids, 21 families. They had fun. They had to dance with each other, boys and girls. Then, the parents had to do dance classes…it was really cute. And we had parental workshops that focused on our National PTA standards with Common Core, advocating for your children. But we also talked about our situations with the police department. So, for two hours, one Thursday night and one Friday night, the adults were in one room learning how to advocate for the children, and the kids were in one room, getting restaurant manners, learning how to use a knife and fork, learning how to tie a tie, learning how to walk with a young lady…things they don’t learn in school.


Making the Grade in Brooklyn: Parent Advocates Needed

The low percentage of students passing the latest state test in Brooklyn serves as an indication of the need for parent advocates:

Grade 3 ELA – 27.6

Grade 3 Math – 33.5

Grade 4 ELA – 27.5

Grade 4 Math – 35.6

Grade 5 ELA – 27.5

Grade 5 Math – 29.4

Grade 6 ELA – 23

Grade 6 Math – 29.1

Grade 7 ELA – 25.8

Grade 7 Math – 25

Grade 8 ELA – 25.1

Grade 8 Math – 26.7