The word "Parent" was added to our organization's name back in May of 2019 because of the immense value they have, and the under-recognition that parents raising children who are struggling get. We see every single day the resilience, strength, time, and effort it takes to be a parent who is raising a child who is struggling and we want to continue to support, encourage, and highlight those parents from across the state of Pennsylvania. Every year February serves as Parent Leadership Month, and this year we want to share the story of one mother and grandmother; Wanda Cummings, who has taken her lived experiences and all of the lessons that she has learned along the way and used them to directly impact the lives of countless families. Cummings has a very impressive educational and professional career that we will discuss in the article, however, it was important to introduce her first and foremost as what she identifies most as, a loving mother and grandmother.
Cummings is a mother of 4; 2 of which struggled with mental health challenges. "My children are older so when I was experiencing challenges during their youth peer support was unheard of there were no mental health crisis centers just medical emergency rooms, it was horrific. I’d go there and see what kind of help I could get if any, initially I was embarrassed to reach out for help because at that time mental health was such a societal taboo. Realizing I didn’t have all the answers and I needed help I would reach out and ask anybody and everybody that I could for support, but it just wasn't there," said Cummings. "Having to take off work so often to deal with my child’s mental health issues I eventually lost my job as a receptionist. I went to work one day, and my manager told me that I essentially needed to decide between my job and my children. I walked out immediately. I needed money but my children are always my priority, that was an easy decision to make."
It was her children's mental health challenges that inspired her to pursue her long and successful career. "I needed to know more about mental health and how to get the best supports for my children. I didn't understand why my honor roll child had moments where they didn't recognize anybody in the family and had to be hospitalized," said Cummings. She decided to learn about mental health and get her associate degree which led to a position as an Addictions Counselor. She then went back to school to get her bachelor’s degree and became a Behavioral Health Therapist in the Addiction Department at the University of Penn. Now not only was she a parent who has experience advocating for her own children and navigating the system from the patient side, but she also was gaining clinical experience and learning how it works from the other side.
Cummings career took her to many places, and she landed a Coordinator position at one of Philadelphia's large University Hospital’s Behavioral Health Department. A year and a half into her role the hospital’s leadership team was so impressed with Cumming’s passion, dedication to patients and staff, and ability to lead by example, that she was promoted to the department’s director's position.
"Even in my jobs in a clinical setting, I felt like I could be a voice for families. I would regularly share my feelings with the clinical team to help them understand the family’s perspective. I would always speak up and say, 'When I was going through this...' Whether they wanted to admit it or not I was sitting at the same table as them, and I was and will always be a family member," said Cummings.
Because her coworkers were so used to her speaking about her own experiences as a mother when she left her position at the hospital one of the doctors that she worked with recommended she look at a position at Parents Involved Network, where she stayed for 6 years. "That was the turning point of my life. Now my coworkers were actually talking about their own struggles raising their children, and if you needed time off to help your child or grandchild it was understood. They didn't look down on you for it, they supported you and it was refreshing. It made me feel like I could be me. I didn't have to have a work me, and an at-home me."
Those 6 years working at the Mental Health Association’s Parents Involved Network cemented the fact that Cummings wanted to work in an environment where the struggles that parents had were not only talked about, but those parents were supported and celebrated for their strength. In August of last year, Cummings became the Family Peer Support Training Coordinator.
“This position is all that I love. I get to talk to and train Family Support Partners, do my research that ultimately helps families, and still get to interact with families. I have met so many parents that are confused about what to do and where to start. I let them know that I have personal experiences myself and it helps us connect.” Her lived experiences and clinical professional experiences have merged together to not only benefit herself as a trainer but also all of the people that she has worked with. “I have been on both sides of the fence. I am able to talk to both sides and show people in a clinical setting how they can better support the families they work with.”
When asked how her lived experiences impact her as a professional, she said; “It provided me with the opportunity to have more empathy and patience and look at things from perspectives other than my own. Back when I was advocating for my own children people would talk over me and disregard my input. I get that families know their children better than anybody does. I remember when I had to bring a child home and work with the limited tools that were given to me. I get what they’re feeling in appointments. I remember the anger, if you are so wrapped up in your anger you can’t hear what’s going on around you. I love seeing families growth from anger to action. I love watching when that light bulb goes off. We need to take the time to work with the families and try and understand things from their point of view.”
In her current role, Cummings not only gets to personally interact with families but train Family Peer Support Partners across the state who will impact even more families. She mentioned that now being able to train Family Peer Support Partners (FPSS) is an “indescribable good feeling.” Cummings loves that the individuals she trains are going to go out across the state and make a difference for families that are like hers. She obviously sees the massive benefit in an FPSS and mentioned that; “When someone says to you ‘Oh I can only imagine what you’re going through, it is nice and it’s kind; but when someone says to you “I get it I’ve been there, it’s like a guardian angel just spoke to you. I’ve had several years of formal education, but no school can teach you what Family Peer Support knows through experience. This is very rewarding work getting to train FPSS,” said Cummings.
“You need support when you are going through something that difficult. When I was raising my children, we didn’t have FPSs, but I was blessed to have my mother, who was my rock, and my greatest support. If anything happened, I would pick up the phone and call my mother. Her support and advice kept me going. I can’t emphasize enough that you NEED a support system, do not isolate yourself.”
Cummings is living proof that there is no such thing as “just a parent.” She has used her lived experiences to become a leader and a strong advocate for the family voice. She urges parents to recognize that it only takes one person to make a change, so do not be afraid to be the change. Cummings made the point that no parent should feel rushed to immediately help other families. She said it is okay to give yourself grace and time to heal from what you went through. It is incredibly draining, and it is okay if you cannot instantly be a parent leader. “I have worked with families and then years down the road have hired them. They gave themselves time to process what they went through and are now out there helping other families.”
From the Parent Alliance to all of our parents out there raising children who are struggling; thank you. Your hard work does not go unnoticed. We hope that Parent Leadership Months serves as a reminder that it is essential that the family voice is heard, and that if anybody ever made you feel like “just a parent” they were wrong – parents are raising the future and the lessons they learn along the way are priceless.