PJ Library’s ‘parent ambassadors’ forge bonds with new moms, families

MaryAnne Smyly Sabin and her family.

By Xena Wolf, Staff Writer

For many new parents, parenthood can be “a lonely experience,” says MaryAnne Smyly Sabin, mother of four and Jewish Federation Women’s Philanthropy board member. When she was a new parent, she had friends who supported her, and “it was just comforting to know that there were other people out there kind of looking out for me, sending me programs to bring my kids to, so that [I wasn’t] just sitting at home with a baby.” 

“I wanted to do that for other people as well,” she said. “I wanted to be able to provide the same kind of support and connect them to other new moms so that they could have a network, because it does truly take a village.” 

That is why Sabin was chosen to be one of three parent ambassadors spearheading a new program brought to the St. Louis Jewish community by PJ Library, an organization beloved by many area families for delivering free monthly, age-appropriate, Judaic children’s books. 

In addition to book subscriptions, PJ Library hosts local events for young Jewish families, such as family Shabbat picnics and a PJ Parents Night Out series. 

These events are often enriching experiences for families, but it can be difficult for new parents to forge meaningful connections at such large gatherings. That is why PJ Library is launching the Parent Ambassador program, which is about “small, meaningful opportunities for families,” said social worker, mother of two and fellow parent ambassador Aleeza Granote. 

“Families don’t always belong to a synagogue, so this is a nice opportunity for people to connect,” she said. “I think having Jewish families connect with each other is only beneficial for children and for families in the long run.”

As parent ambassadors, Sabin, Granote and PJ Library Advisory Committee member and mother of two Abby Goldstein will facilitate these connections. Only a couple of months into their new roles, the three are largely still in the initial process of reaching out to parents of young children in the local Jewish community. 

To start out, the trio call around to friends who they think might be interested and who in turn connect them to other families that  might be interested. The ambassadors also reach out to local clergy and other organizations to find families that could benefit from the program, and to subscribers to the PJ Library book program who have children in the target age range of newborn to 3 years. Each ambassador has her own specialty: Sabin focuses on families that live west of Interstate 270, Goldstein on families that live east of I-270, and Granote on working parents (regardless of location). 

The Parent Ambassador program, PJ Library Coordinator Jennifer Baer Lotsoff says, has been “brewing for a number of years” and was able to be implemented when it was recently awarded a grant. One of the things that makes the program special, Lotsoff said, is that it “reaches across denomination, ethnic [identity], affiliation [and] the spectrum of engagement.” 

The  hope, she said, is that it will “increase opportunities for Jewish experiences and social connection” for all. The parent ambassadors will “meet the family where they’re at in their Jewish journeys and connect them to other folks who are going through the same life stage, the same things.” 

In their search for the first parent ambassadors, Lotsoff and PJ Library wanted “someone who was really excited to meet and welcome parents and get to know them,” she said. They received many outstanding applications and eventually selected Sabin, Granote and Goldstein, who certainly seem to fit this description.

At this point, the parent ambassadors’ jobs mainly consist of reaching out to new families and setting up one-on-one coffee dates with parents (and sometimes their kids) to get to know them and “talk about babies,” Sabin said. 

“But a lot of the time, moms just want to talk about anything else, really,” she said.

Granote has already launched a few group events, such as a storytime at Whole Foods and a “smoothies and schmoozing” meetup at the mall. She has gotten “a lot of really good feedback” on these programs, and all three parent ambassadors have more plans along these lines. 

“I’ve noticed that people really want to connect and are just trying to find opportunities to be able to do that,” Granote said. 

Even the more preliminary coffee dates between the ambassadors and parents are beneficial, Goldstein said, because “it’s a really cool opportunity to be two moms talking and just feel like you’re not alone out there.” 

 Lotsoff said: “People who I’ve spoken with have really loved the authentic connections that the ambassadors have been able to start building, either with the ambassador herself or with other families. It’s been great so far.” 

Lotsoff and the three ambassadors all agree that the parent ambassador program is off to a great start and predict that it will grow in the coming months as their social networks expand and their programming draws in more and more families. 

“It’s just beginning,” Goldstein said. 

She hopes that it will get to the point where parents are aware of the program and reach out to the ambassadors to get connected to similar families, as opposed to the current pattern of ambassadors contacting the parents first. 

For now, they will keep forging ahead with their model of, as Lotsoff puts it, “DIY Judaism.”

For more information about PJ Library or its community ambassadors program contact Jennifer Baer Lotsoff at 314-442-3867 or [email protected].