GLEN ELLYN – When Gilda Ross began the Glenbard Parent Series: Navigating Healthy Families 25 years ago, she never thought it would turn into a local phenomenon.
Today, the free event-based series, which has welcomed hundreds of speakers and led countless presentations on teenage substance abuse and mental health, is considered one of the most coveted educational resources for families and schools in DuPage County.
Ask Ross what it was like planning for GPS way back when and she says her main goal was to get parents to show up.
“The joke I would make is if we’ve got three people presenting, then we better have at least three people in the audience,” said Ross, student and community projects coordinator at Glenbard Township High School District 87.
A former school counselor, Ross learned the hard way that parents of high school students typically don’t attend sit-down school events, but she no longer wanted them to miss out.
Ross is a mother and drew from her experiences to shape GPS. One of the reasons she started the series was to create a community for parents – to let them know they aren’t alone.
“There is no job harder than being a parent,” she said. “We all come into it with our hopes and our desires to do the very best job that we possibly can.”
Ross laughed as she opened up to tell the story that sparked the idea for GPS. Depending on who you ask, she said, what was meant to be a compliment from a cashier quickly soured a shopping trip in a split-second.
“The woman who was checking us out said [to my daughter], ‘Oh, you look so much like your mother,’ and I thought, ‘Isn’t that sweet? I’m sure Hilary is going to love that,’ ” Ross said. “But that was not the case.”
Looking over at Hilary, Ross saw her daughter was annoyed.
“I had this lightbulb moment. ‘Oh, gosh, I have a teenager,’ ” Ross said. “[Hilary] was 13. She was just entering those years. … I like to think of myself as a trained professional but I can see this is going to be a bumpy ride.”
Around that time, Ross discovered a book written by clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf. The book’s title, which Ross still remembers by heart, spoke to her: “Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall.”
“It was such a moment,” Ross said. “I have this sense of relief because I think as parents we want to boast about our children, and we don’t necessarily share [this version of] this bratty, entitled child who is unhappy because we look alike.
“So, I thought, I’m not the only one,” Ross continued. “I’m not the only one because someone’s written a book about this. I’m going to tell everybody I know that there’s this book, and wouldn’t it be great if we brought Anthony Wolfe to the community and [parents] could all have an opportunity to learn about the book and hear his comments on raising teens?”
With Wolf as one of the first GPS speakers, Ross worked to roll out a roster packed with educators, social workers, psychologists, activists, writers, filmmakers and more. Throughout the years, Ross expanded GPS, bringing parents of grade school students into the mix. She extended an invite to parents who homeschool their children, caregivers, students, staff and local residents. Ross branched out into the community for support, partnering with schools outside of District 87, nonprofits and businesses, including the DuPage Medical Group, the College of DuPage and Kiwanis.
These relationships were – and are – crucial to GPS’s foundation. Ross has realized in order for the series to become a sustainable series, it has to stay relevant and in-the-know of the latest research, trends and data. For example, teens’ use of social media and teenage substance abuse have become recurring topics in recent years at GPS.
“Twenty-five years ago, there was no thought about vaping. There’s always new information,” Ross said. “Even heroin overdose – at the very start, that really wasn’t a concern. We had more programs on drinking and driving than we do now.”
Another thing Ross has done to strengthen the series is she treats each program like it’s her first and constantly collects insight from attendees.
“There’s a tremendous amount of responsibility with every single program because if someone comes and doesn’t feel like this person could communicate the information well,” she said, “I think you may have lost that person forever. Every single event has to check the boxes of someone who is well-researched and has the ability to share the information because you may not get another chance with that particular participant.”
Jessica Buttimer, a Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 school board member, has been going to events hosted by GPS since her eldest daughter was in kindergarten.
“It’s great that we have this wealth of resources and thoughts brought to our community where speakers are coming to share what they’ve learned through their research about what works with kids and how we can help them flourish,” said Buttimer, whose daughter is in fifth grade.
Of all the presentations, there is one lesson that Buttimer carries with her. She recalled an author talking about how parents need to help their children “feel those feelings,” identify them and connect with them.
“Nobody’s kids come with instruction manuals,” Buttimer said. “The thing that your kids might need from you is your time and your ear.”
A message like that one is key for parents, Ross said. With the COVID-19 pandemic, parents are facing another challenge. Ross, by example, sought to remind parents that change is inevitable. GPS launched the Take 5 Video Series on YouTube, which transformed the beloved in-person events into a virtual experience.
Michele Borba, a regular GPS speaker, echoed Buttimer and Ross’ sentiments. Borba, an educational psychologist and author of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine, spoke about the power that empathy, resilience and optimism has on children. These are traits that parents and educators can teach.
In times like these, having a support system is critical, and the series is a mainstay, a lifeline of sorts.
As Ross reflected on GPS’s growth over the past two decades, she talked about how the series has impacted her and helped her become a better mother, school counselor and educator.
There’s an author who came to GPS years ago and advised parents to “love the child in front of you, not the child that you hoped for, dreamed for, imagined.” It’s a simple, impactful statement that parents should keep in their back pocket, Ross said.
“We need to be kind to ourselves and understand that there is no perfect parent on the planet. It doesn’t exist,” Ross said. “Every single program reminds us of the important connection that our children need, that even as they push us away, that we need to stay in their lives and be there and show up.”