Empathy in Action: Fostering Trust and Community at Friday CAFE

What comes to mind when you think of empathy? Perhaps it’s a warm hug during a moment of sorrow, or the shared laughter that brings people together. 

If you’ve attended a Friday CAFE (Community and Family Engagement), administered by the San Mateo County Office of Education and funded by First 5 San Mateo County, you’ve heard Anthony Thomas, the Conversation Catalyst at Friday CAFE say, “Empathy is feeling with another person, rather than feeling for them. It’s really about being with someone in the space that they’re at, whether good, bad, or indifferent.”

San Mateo County Office of Education’s (SMCOE) Friday CAFE is a monthly gathering where self-exploration, connection, and authentic dialogue between our county’s dedicated family support staff take center stage. Facilitated by Anthony Thomas, Manager of Community Services at Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center (PCRC), the goal of Friday CAFE is to provide support and shift the mindset for those working directly with families. These are the people you meet at Family Resource Centers, social workers, home visitors– all of the incredible people who work tirelessly to support families as they grow and learn the ropes of caring for young children ages 0 to 5.

As a leader of the CAFE initiative in the county since its inception in 2017, Soodie Ansari, Coordinator, Early Learning Dual Language Support at the San Mateo County Office of Education, shed light on the foundation of Friday CAFEs and how empathy supports that foundation. “Empathy plays a huge role in order to build trusting relationships, where families can trust to share more of themselves with us, so that we can walk hand in hand and figure out solutions together,” Soodie explained. 

Shifting their thinking from doing for families, to actually partnering with families has been a crucial part of this program’s success. Our community needs to recognize the invaluable contributions of family support providers. “The people you are speaking to are experts, no matter what. They are sharing their lived experience which makes them an expert,” Anthony added, emphasizing the importance of authentic connection.

The heart of Friday CAFE lies in its four key goals: building connections through networking, sparking innovative thinking, establishing a professional identity for the family engagement field, and creating a restorative experience. These goals guide every conversation and interaction during the CAFEs.

Providers benefit immensely from sharing their experiences and challenges with peers during these sessions. Anthony highlights, “Providers are filling their own buckets. They also appreciate the safe space to check-in about how they feel, open and honestly.” Anthony encourages participants to practice self-disclosure, sharing their stories without feeling like they have to bear it all.

That’s why empathy training and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) like Friday CAFE are crucial tools for those working with families. When you’re in the practice of providing support to others, it’s not only about serving them, but about filling your own buckets too. As Valerie Higgins, a former Friday CAFE participant and Advisory Council member, shared, filling her own bucket was transformational in her journey as a family support provider. It helped her reconnect with herself personally and professionally and ultimately cultivated better care and understanding for the families she serves.

Practicing empathy positively impacts the relationships between family support providers and the families they serve, encouraging deeper connections, authentic relationships, and a greater sense of cultural humility. Anthony expressed his pleasure in this impact, sharing “Based on feedback, surveys, and our discussions, I know [participants] are coming back and they want more. It’s clear they derive value from our sessions, and grow from them.” This affirmation highlights the significance of Friday CAFE in fostering empathetic practices. 

Through meaningful conversations and shared lived experiences, participants walk away with a renewed sense of purpose and tools they can use in real-time to build trusting relationships with families. As Anthony said, “We’re not human doings, we’re human beings.”

We invite all family support providers, and professionals working directly with families, to join in at the next Friday CAFE session virtually on May 3rd, and in-person on June 7th! Come share your lived experience and walk away feeling refreshed. For more information about Friday CAFE, contact Soodie Ansari, sansari@smcoe.org. For more information on Friday CAFE registration, contact Luz Ariza, lariza@smcoe.org

Kitty Lopez has served as the Executive Director of First 5 San Mateo County since 2012, focusing on policy, advocacy and communications development. Additionally, she is the Chair of First 5 Association of California. Kitty previously served as the Executive Director of Samaritan House, one of the leading safety-net nonprofit agencies serving low-income families and individuals in San Mateo County with food, shelter, clothing, health care, counseling, education classes, and holiday assistance from 2002 to 2012.

Kitty taught kindergarten, second grade, and high school in the Bay Area and in Santa Barbara, and was a consultant in schools with children who have autism and special needs. Additionally, Kitty worked in a residential substance abuse treatment center in San Francisco and psychiatric hospital in San Diego.

She attended University of California Santa Barbara earning a California Teaching Credential and B.A in Psychology. Kitty is active in her community serving on several community boards including HEART (Housing Endowment and Regional Trust of San Mateo County), STEP (Success Through Education Program), and Past President and Current Member of the San Mateo Rotary Club.