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School program seeks newborn volunteers

Courtney Custer, right, Roots of Empathy program director, visits with then-1-year-old Harper Layman and her mother, Chelsea Layman, last summer. Harper and her mother participated in the program. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Courtney Custer, right, Roots of Empathy program director, visits with then-1-year-old Harper Layman and her mother, Chelsea Layman, last summer. Harper and her mother participated in the program. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Newborn babies have skill sets to teach older children and adults.

Roots of Empathy, a successful program facilitated by Albuquerque-based Southwest Family Guidance Center, offers experiential learning for children from kindergarten to fifth grade in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho schools.

It helps students understand how empathy, the trait of identifying with another individual’s feelings and emotions, can help identify and redirect bullying and aggressive behavior.

The program, begun in 2014, draws on the resources of Southwest Family Guidance Center, a group of professional behavioral health experts with offices and staff throughout New Mexico, and uses volunteer parents with newborn children.

Participating students – many of whom live in households with younger siblings – learn how to safely interact with smaller children; how to identify and, if necessary, report unsafe behaviors they witness; and how to empathize with others who may look, act or speak differently than they do.

The baby with their volunteer parent, visit specific classrooms intermittently throughout the program’s 27-week curriculum.

“Roots of Empathy is much of what it sounds like; a focus on our natural ability to empathize with others and to put ourselves in another individual’s shoes,” says program director Courtney Custer. “Babies are born with that capability. We all are. If you’ve ever watched a baby intuitively crawl towards another person who’s crying or begins crying in tandem with them, then you’re witnessing natural empathy.”

The successful program is in demand, so Custer is actively recruiting volunteer parents with babies born in May, June and July for programs starting in September.

Parents attend a free training program and are asked to commit to nine classroom visits over the school year. In return they receive a Babies R Us gift card.

Parents interested in volunteering can contact Custer at 301-3036 or ccuster.swfgc@gmail.com.


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