Rachael Cook unveils vision for family center in Thetford

"Any mom knows that motherhood, while rewarding, can also be experienced as exhausting and isolating," a parent said.

Rachael Cook unveils vision for family center in Thetford
Tales and Tunes with Tots group members in March 2019.

Ten years ago, Rachael Cook moved to Thetford with her husband, Corey, and their two kids, who were four and one at the time. She started attending story time at Latham Library with her daughters, but she noticed that there was no baby or toddler-oriented group in town. So she decided to start her own group, Tales and Tunes with Tots, which she began running voluntarily in the spring of 2013.

Another group, MUST (Moms United Support Group of Thetford), was formed by a peer around the same time, and for several years Rachael ran both of them until she eventually merged them into a single group. Rachael now has three kids, and while all of them are school-aged, she continues to run this group.

Rachael Cook holds group members' babies while pregnant with her third child in 2015.

Tales and Tunes with Tots had a big impact on local parents of young children right from the start (mostly moms, but several dads became regulars over the years as well). Reflecting on the early days, Rachael said, “Both groups had multiple people show up on the first day. Some of them had never been out with their little ones before. There were people who didn’t know anyone and didn’t know how to connect with others in town. Almost immediately friendships started forming. All these people were desperate for the same thing, but none of them knew how to get started.”

Testimonials that Rachael collected reflected that need being fulfilled. One parent, Alana, wrote, “The MUST/Tales and Tunes groups literally saved me from going insane. Even though I grew up in the area I felt that I didn’t have much contact with other stay-at-home moms with kids around my age. I would sometimes go an entire week without leaving the house and had no one to hang out with.”

Another member, Nikki, shared that things got really tough for her after she became a mom of two within a twelve-month period. “I needed help, normalcy, connection, and people with whom I could relate and seek advice… the MUST and Tales and Tunes with Tots groups have had a profound impact on my life… I developed some of the deepest friendships I have ever had among the women in these groups.”

One of the things that set Rachael’s group apart from other local playgroups was her emphasis on supporting the parents of infants and toddlers and on accepting them in whatever way they were able to show up. Her ad for the group, which she occasionally posts on local listservs, reads that even “if you are 6 days unshowered, hair a mess, everyone still in pajamas… if you are late… if you are new and nervous… if you’ve got a baby or child crying or making noise… Come join us! Your village awaits you!”

Rachael knows just how meaningful these words can be for new mothers to hear. She remembers attending playgroups where she felt judged and unsupported when she showed up late, loud (because of crying/whining kids), and looking like a hot mess. Having suffered from postpartum anxiety and depression after the birth of her second child, she knows that being able to leave the house no matter what kind of a day you’re having can make a world of difference. There were many times when she felt that her spit-up-covered pajamas and messy hair were insurmountable obstacles to going out and making the connections that she so desperately needed at that time. Rachael doesn’t want that kind of scenario to stop anyone from showing up to her group, and she feels that the people having the hardest time leaving the house are the ones who need it the most. Many group members have taken her up on it over the years, showing up in their pajamas in a flurry of chaos just so that they can briefly make contact with the outside world.

As Becca, another group-goer from the early days, put it, “Any mom knows that motherhood, while rewarding, can also be experienced as exhausting and isolating. Rachael, in reaching out with her vision, provided a place of refuge, a place to be known, a place to be accepted in the daily struggles of raising children.”

During the pandemic, group meetings transitioned to Zoom for a time, but they continued to be a lifeline for this particularly isolated subset of society. Thalia, a pre-pandemic regular, shared with Rachael what the impact had been for her personally. “When we started our family, our first two pregnancies were traumatic, and we endured them alone for the most part. There’s only so much family or friends could do via FaceTime… our third pregnancy happened in 2020. There were lockdowns, and fear, and hyperemesis gravidarum, but it was still our best pregnancy yet. Because we had local support… I have a village [now]. I’m not so lonely anymore.”

Rachael realized fairly early on that there was a vital need for more than just a weekly playgroup or support group. “I would look into the faces of people who were having a really hard time, and it was difficult for me, knowing that this might be the only hour of the week that they had a supportive place to go and get out of the house. I wanted to be able to offer so much more.” She started thinking about expanding her group into a full-fledged family center that would be open and able to serve this population for more than just a couple of hours a week.

Rachael envisions a space with an open gym area so that toddlers can play and run freely during the long winter months, as well as a quiet indoor play area and a fenced-in playground. It would have space for a lending library, a toy library, a diaper bank, and even a free clothing swap. The center would continue to host supportive playgroups, as well as group walks, classes, and workshops that are relevant to parents of kids of all ages. It would also have a memorial wall to remember and honor children who have been lost during pregnancy or after birth.

In the winter of 2018, Rachael took a course through Vermont Technical College on how to start a non-profit business. Not long afterward, she met Miranda Holder, a Thetford resident and professional leadership coach. Miranda’s husband, Jamie, had been attending Rachael’s group for some time with their young son. When Miranda came to check it out, she and Rachael got to talking about Rachael’s idea of starting a family center in town. Without hesitation, Miranda offered her services to Rachael pro bono to help her bring her dream to fruition.

For the past three years, Rachael has been meeting with Miranda regularly, who has been consulting, guiding, and coaching her down this path. Now, The Kindred Village Center (KVC) has been incorporated and has officially attained 501(c)(3) non-profit status, a process that was neither quick nor easy. The center currently has a four-member Board of Directors, which ultimately Rachael would like to see grow to seven or even nine members.

The next major hurdle for her will be to find a physical location for the center and to have the funding available to purchase or rent a property as well as for things like maintenance, utilities, insurance, and necessary building updates. She has considered many buildings in town, including the North Thetford Church and the Timothy Frost building, both of which have a seemingly low price tag but come with high maintenance and/or modernization costs.

In November, Rachael formally announced KVC to the public on the listserv and Facebook, inviting community support for the center via its first Gofundme fundraiser. In just over a month, she has reached nearly half of her first goal of 10k through over sixty individual donations ranging from $10 to $500. While the board is currently researching other grant opportunities, it was important to Rachael that they kick off the fundraising with community donations. For her, the small donations are incredibly meaningful. “I want the people in this community to know that they helped make it happen, no matter how much or little they’re able to do. It takes a village to make a village.”

Names of group members have been changed to protect privacy.

Tales and Tunes with Tots is held on Mondays from 10:30-11:30 a.m. in the First Congregational Church of Thetford (masks are required for adults and children who are old enough to wear them). There is also an outdoor playgroup on the second Sunday of each month at the Thetford Elementary School playground from 1:30-2:30 p.m.

Rachael also runs a Facebook group for local parents called K.I.T.E. Kids in Tow Excursions, where members can share events and local happenings, ask for advice and/or give feedback, and look for or give away (for free) child/baby-related items. The group is private, but you can request to join either by searching Facebook or by contacting Rachael directly.

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