To mark its decade of work as a one-stop source on parenting, NSFN will host a family picnic and concert this Friday at Steel Park in Stoneham. The Toe Jam Puppet Band, a special brand of hands-on children entertainment, will perform, and a raffle will be held in which the winners will receive two tickets to a Red Sox vs. Orioles game.

"We encourage people to come and bring a picnic dinner, blanket and chairs," said Kathy Harlow, program manager for NSFN. "This is the time of year where we are coming to the end of our programs for the fiscal year, and this gives families a chance to get together. In particular, it gives some working dads the opportunity to meet the people their wives and children have met through our programs."

Funded by a $124,673 grant from the state's Department of Early Education and Care, NSFN served 970 families and 1,110 children under the age of 4 last year, according to Harlow. Whether it's stopping by for "drop-in playtime" or taking a peek at the network's extensive book, video and DVD resource library, caregivers and families are using NSFN's services to learn how to be the best parent they can be.

"We provide tools needed for the journey through parenting and taking care of young children," Harlow said. "Research has shown that our programs help children as young as infancy build brain power and social skills."

Stoneham resident Joanne Jensen began bringing her twins, Madeline and Elliott, now 4, to NSFN when they were 9 months old. Having heard about the program through a friend, Jensen depended on the network for advice - whether it was on how to find the perfect babysitter or how to comprehend why children went through the "terrible twos."

"Even though my children are too old to participate now, I still look back at the network with fondness," said Jensen, who currently serves on the coalition that is the governing body of NSFN. "Some of the resources I have received have been invaluable. The parenting and child development workshops were great and helped me to understand the certain developmental stages children go through. Now I can understand why my kids do some of the things they do, like throw things for no apparent reason."

In addition to educational workshops, NSFN also offers "Dad's Lunch Brunch," a facilitated playgroup for fathers and their children. The group, which brings together fathers and their kids on Wednesdays from 12:15 to 1:30, sparked the creation of North of Boston Dads, an online social network of fathers.
But one of NSFN's most popular programs is its drop-in playtime, where caregivers bring their children to the network's facility in Melrose to socialize and play with others. Two rooms are filled with everything a child could dream of - from puzzles to toys to a slide and mock kitchen set.

For Jensen, drop-in playtime was a godsend, especially during the colder months.

"In the winter your house just becomes so small," she said. "It's good to get your kids out and in a new environment."

With 10 years having past, the NSFN coalition is now looking towards the future. According to Jensen, the governing body of NSFN is exploring the possibility of creating a new program to help single mothers and children in need.
"What I found to be helpful is to know that there are resources available," said Jensen of her experience with the network. "I would like to see a mentoring or shadowing program instituted where you have other mothers and caregivers you can talk to."

But one of the main goals right now is to keep NSFN alive by securing steady funding to pair with the grant from the state's Department of Education and Early Care.

Said Harlow: "It's our hope to be around for the next 10 years, providing caregivers and families with the support and resources they need."

The North Suburban Family Network will celebrate 10 years during a family picnic and concert and Friday, June 20, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Steele Park in Stoneham. For more information, call 781-662-2722.


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