When Cheryl Lutz Miller came to Oregon State in the late ’60s, she had what she calls an improbable dream.
As a child, she experienced the effects of abandonment, chronic trauma, poverty and social isolation and was all too familiar with the challenges of struggling families.
The opportunity to attend Oregon State changed the vision and direction of her life. Still, faced with little income and feeling emotionally and socially disconnected, “I was marginal,” she says. “Hanging on.”
She dropped out a term or two to make ends meet and to recover from childhood medical issues, but she never gave up and earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology, as well as a Doctor of Education degree before embarking on an extended career in education and organizational development.
“It was important I finish this and graduate because then I could find my own path,” she says. “I had the improbable dream, not the impossible. And the dream came true.”
A way out
Born in Salem, Ore., the daughter of a destitute mother, Cheryl’s early childhood took her on the road through California and Nebraska to a cabin in the backwoods of Upper Michigan. There, safety, nurturing and basic necessities were scarce. At 5, with her mother and two siblings, she would return to Tangent, Ore., and live in a shanty by the railroad tracks. At 6, Cheryl and one brother became wards of the court and placed in a small rural town in East Linn County. Though socially withdrawn and malnourished, with the encouragement of teachers and a stable home Cheryl thrived at school and quickly advanced academically.
During the next three to five years required to fully develop and launch this new system, the following goals will be achieved:
- Provide leadership to create a system of professional development for parenting educators in Oregon and serve as model for rest of the nation
- Develop a set of core competencies and a system and consistent guidelines for professional development for parenting educators
- Develop a tiered credentialing system supporting parenting educators
- Deliver parenting education services via public/private partnerships
- Create a one-stop virtual center for professional development opportunities
- Partner with Oregon State’s ECampus to develop content and tools for web-based courses
She entered Oregon State via the OSU Honors College with both academic and needs-based scholarships. Through hard work, perseverance and support from OSU Student Services, her dream of becoming a college graduate and making a better life came true. Through the experience, Cheryl discovered three things. One, school can be a home. Two, hard work pays off and can offer a way out of poverty. And three, parenting matters.
The most critical element in a child’s growth and development is reliable, responsive and sensitive parenting, which can close up to 50 percent of the gaps in school readiness. Educating parents is just as important – it not only builds parent knowledge and skills but also strengthens parent-child relationships and promotes age-appropriate care and activities that enhance a child’s health, development and social skills.
In part because she found a home and a way out at Oregon State, she’s been a strong supporter of her alma mater for years, serving on the OSU Foundation Board of Trustees and making generous gifts, including to the Student Success Center and its efforts to support at-risk youth. In 2012, determined to help parents and young children, she established an endowed professorship in the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families (HFC).
Her vision? Increase the university’s focus on community implementation of evidence-based programs supporting effective parenting and early childhood development. Her estate gift also establishes endowments for a visiting speaker fund and an internship fund for OSU students committed to working with vulnerable families.
“Quality, effective parenting is not automatic – it’s learned.”
Her support will help build a national model for training and developing parenting educators that includes a professional network; a tiered professional development system; a standardized, evidence-based curriculum; and coordinated professional development training and opportunities.
“Support for parenting educators has long been surfacing as a need,” says Denise Rennekamp, parenting education program coordinator at the HFC. “There’s no umbrella for these professionals, nor any professional development. It’s a hard area to find anyone to invest in, but the ripple effect can be great. It can raise qualifications across the state.”
A way forward
Cheryl “gets it,” Denise says. “We so appreciate her involvement in our college and center and value her heart for families and children.”
“With Cheryl’s support, we are able to take one of our strategic areas of outreach to a whole new level,” says HFC Endowed Director Rick Settersten. “Gifts like this allow us to leverage our common commitments and make a leap in advancing the vision of the center. But what I so admire about Cheryl is that she loves science — I mean she actually reads hardcore scientific journals — and she’s passionate about using science to improve human welfare. What more could you want from a donor?”
The collaborative is a partnership of the Oregon Community Foundation, The Ford Family Foundation, Oregon State University, the Meyer Memorial Trust, the Collins Foundation and several OCF donor-advised funds. Because it exists, parenting education services are much less fragmented and more accessible to parents across the state.
Dean Tammy Bray especially admires Cheryl’s knowledge and passion. “Cheryl’s contributions to the college – her vision for parenting education, her heart and her service on the Dean’s Circle of Excellence – are priceless,” she says. “She’s a great partner.”
Calling herself a “resource broker,” Cheryl hopes her investment not only will achieve her parenting education goals but also inspire others to join her.
“I wish OSU donors would make effective parenting development a priority and help shepherd this strategic area of the Hallie Ford Center. Planting this seed and growing it over time is so important. Why do we wait to make the lives of children better when we know what to do? If we will not do it, then who will? This is our opportunity – let’s take it.”
Luckily, she has a few things on her side, including the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative, and new momentum at the state level for parenting education. Just last year, Oregon won a $20 million federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant to improve the state’s early childhood programs. The money will kickstart improvements in public and private programs for young children, including better training of early childhood workers, as well as better measurement of how well these programs support children’s school-readiness.
“It’s such an exciting time to be in Oregon now,” Denise says. “We as a country are realizing that parenting matters, and when people invest in that, it’s pretty incredible.”
To Cheryl, it’s a no-brainer. “Quality, effective parenting is not automatic – it’s learned,” she says. “We need to bring tools and resources to those parents wanting to make a better life for their children. We have big gaps, and we need to build bridges. How do we move from high drop-out rates, foster care, food insecurity and working family homelessness to dreams? The bridges are research, partnerships and parenting education.”