BENNINGTON — When you become a parent, the baby arrives without an instruction manual.

But there’s help just around the corner in downtown Bennington. The Sunrise Family Resource Center, which just renovated 226 Union St., held an open house last week to welcome its new parenting resource director and highlight recent improvements, including a pantry stocked with goods new parents might need in a pinch, from foods and laundry detergent to diapers, wipes and formula.

Two parents attending that open house, and making the most of the opportunities offered by the center, are Jenna Grover and Nicholas Reed of Bennington. They’re attending workshops at the Resource Center for what they hope will be a full-time reunion in March with their 3-year-old son, presently in the care of the state Department for Children and Families. Grover proudly showed a photo of their son on her phone.

Grover, 28, and Reed, 35, talked about those workshops at the open house a week ago — where they also picked up certificates showing they’d participated.

At present, they’re visiting their son three times a week — once together, and each once on their own. “They want to see what we can do together and separately,” Grover said.

The learning has included classes on anger management for parents and children, on health and safety topics, and on the role of parents as teachers.

Plenty of skills learned

What have they learned? “That kids can feel your feelings, too, when you’re upset or mad or something,” Grover said.

“Learning how to take care of our son’s medical issues and what to look for … learning a lot about what a 3-year-old does,” Reed added.

They’re working with Tiffany Racicot, who came to Sunrise in June after working as a therapeutic case manager and counselor at United Counseling Service. She’s stepping into that role, as Lori Pinsonneault has decided to retire after 31 years at the agency.

In addition to providing parent education workshops and classes, Racicot facilitates a women’s coffee club and a walking group, and coordinates free in-home or virtual visits to address postpartum depression.

Racicot is also partnering with the hospital to distribute “welcome baby” gift bags to new parents delivering through Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. The contents of each bag are generous, and about 140 are being handed out per month, Racicot said.

“I am finishing developing the first ‘bringing baby home’ parent education series in which we discuss pregnancy, birth and bringing baby home up to the first six months,” Racicot said. “We discussed postpartum, infant development, self care, bathing, feeding hygiene, safe sleep, and recognizing baby’s cues and how to respond appropriately.”

After the free in-home or virtual visit, “The hope is that they join back up for the parent education classes that run 12 to 16 weeks to help them learn the different stages of their baby’s development,” Racicot said.

In the back of 226 Union St., accessible from the outside, is an open pantry, which is not limited to food. There are also clothes for children and parents.

No longer cramped class space

Inside, what used to be a cramped classroom has been turned into a comfortable multipurpose room with a large-screen TV, and the kitchen has been redesigned to make it larger and more accessible.

“We want to maintain that home environment. That’s really important to us,” Executive Director Denise Main said. “We’re often the first stop for parents accessing services. The spaces are small, they’re cozy and comforting. People feel safe here. That’s our goal.”

For example, on Wednesday night the center held a “making meals and memories” program at the center. “We had five to six families attending with their children,” Main said. “[The parents] cooked, the children played, so everybody got to be together.”

Main said she raised the idea of remodeling the house with the Resource Center’s board of directors before the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Coronavirus relief funds helped pay for the work, with the assistance of the Bennington statehouse delegation, she said.

The pantry was funded via the community response fund at Bennington College, as part of the $1 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant the college received to fight food insecurity. Additional funding from a Vermont Buildings and Grounds grant and community development block grants provided by the town of Bennington helped fill in gaps and complete the installation of energy-efficient heat pumps, and Stewart’s Shops donated food, Main said.

A fond farewell

Of Pinsonneault, Main said she was a strong voice in Montpelier for the parents and children the Resource Center serves. “One of the things we will miss most is her advocacy on behalf of children and families,” Main said.

Pinsonneault’s last day was Thursday, and her roles are being taken up by Racicot, in parent education, and Susannah Wright in child-care referral.

“My kids basically grew up here, and my grandkids, too,” Pinsonneault said with a chuckle.

“It was time. The mortgage is paid and it’s really been a grand ride … Sunrise is a great place to work,” she said.

A lot has changed in 31 years — and not just that when she started assembling newsletters for the agency, the main tool was a typewriter.

“We’ve learned so much about brain development and how much the early years count,” Pinsonneault said. “When a baby cries and you pick it up and comfort it, it’s connecting neurons. We’ve learned more about how better to teach children — that they learn during play, and that social development is vital for success.”

What’s next? “I am going to make soap and watch the critters in my backyard,” she said. “Maybe I’ll even get to clean my house.”