ND Founders Profile #104: This FouNDer Is Building Healthy Brains in Pre-school Kids by Teaching Parents How to Play

Author: Melanie Lux

Nd Founders Square Photofbweb


Company Founded: Training Grounds Year Graduated: 1993
Title: Founder Degree: BA, Business and Sociology
Location: New Orleans, LA Residence Hall: BP Hall

If you could do one thing for your child that would lay the foundation for a happy, balanced future, Melanie Richardson would tell you to do this:

Play with them.

And don’t wait until they’re in kindergarten, start early. From birth. Get down on your belly, on the ground, and follow your child’s lead. Wave your arms. Make funny noises. Blow bubbles. Smile and laugh. And as your child ages, continue to play with them. Don’t let up.

It seems so easy, but truth be told, it took Richardson almost 25 years and numerous career twists and turns to arrive at this point. She is now five years into TrainingGrounds, a nonprofit startup she co-founded with Christine Neely, that is addressing gaps in early childhood care and education in New Orleans by teaching parents, grandparents, and other caregivers to engage in constructive play from the moment a child is born.

And it works. So well, in fact, that Richardson, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, and Neely are in the midst of expanding their New Orleans location and scope of services and strategizing how to take their model to other cities. Despite the odds, Richardson knows that the TrainingGrounds model will thrive wherever it goes. Why is she so confident? Let’s just say she’s already proven that model.

Richardson’s FouNDer’s journey began in her hometown of New Orleans where she grew up in a close-knit, extended family of brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. She played basketball at her all-Black, all-girls Catholic high school, St. Mary’s Academy. How she loved basketball!

“I was a huge fan of David Rivers who was a point guard at Notre Dame. I would watch Notre Dame’s games on television on Saturdays just to see him play. During one game I saw a commercial for Notre Dame. I knew nothing about the school, but I loved their ad. I decided that’s where I wanted to go to college,” she says.

New Orleans and South Bend, Indiana, were as different as night and day. Richardson’s life until this point was one in which she was surrounded by people who looked like her, where she was immersed in the cultural , culinary, and historic richness of the “Big Easy.” At the time, Notre Dame only had about 300 African American students. Its culture revolved around academics and football. Local cuisine was solidly and plainly Midwestern.

None of that mattered to Richardson. “I wanted to go someplace entirely different to see how the rest of the world operated.”

Arriving on campus her freshman year, she declared Business as her major. “My plan was to be the director of a nonprofit, so I thought Business would be useful,” she explains. Richardson also began her lifelong work on behalf of children. While in South Bend, she did marketing outreach programs for women and children at the YWCA. She also served as a counselor at the local juvenile detention center.

On graduation day, Richardson realized she’d achieved what she sought in South Bend. “Attending Notre Dame pushed me to leave New Orleans. Not only did I meet wonderful people at Notre Dame who I still collaborate with, I found that no matter where I found myself or what I set out to do, I could survive and thrive.”

Thus empowered, Richardson moved to Philadelphia to pursue a Master’s in Social Service Program Development from the University of Pennsylvania. While there, she volunteered her time with the Girl Scouts, which was in-line with her vision of working with kids.  “I was so excited because I had a plan for my life of assessing communities and developing plans. When I graduated with my masters, I did something entirely different.”

That something different was a job as director of Student Athlete Enhancement at Grambling State University, a historically Black college in northern Louisiana. After graduating from UPenn, Richardson interned with the New Orleans Saints and Tulane University Athletics during the summer months. So jumping to the community of college sports, especially Grambling with Eddie Robinson as its football coach, felt right.

“I really enjoyed the job working with student athletes,” she says. “My role was to get them to broaden their horizons beyond athletics.”

Richardson spent the next 15 years in college athletics, advancing her career through ever higher roles at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, University of New Orleans and Arkansas State University. At Arkansas State, Richardson worked in the President’s Office with under-represented minority college students. “They were the cream of the crop; they had made it to college. However, many were struggling with academic suspensions and other problems. I did what I could to help but realized if I was going to make a difference, I had to go younger.”

Richardson pivoted to high school counseling, accepting a role as director of Northlake Youth Academy in Mandeville, Louisiana outside of New Orleans. The issues she found at the residential school for teens were the same as those at the college level: they were struggling. The experience was profound.

“I met young people with serious issues. I learned what happened to them, not just what they had done. Most had a traumatic life experience that happened very early in their lives. By their teen years, their outlook on life was already formed and their survival brain had taken over,” she says.

“The heartbreaking part was that so much of what happened could have been prevented. These kids’ lives were impacted by adults’ choices and behaviors, and it caused long-term negative impacts on their mental and behavioral health,” Richardson continues.

Moving back to New Orleans, Richardson held three part-time jobs at once. Each proved critical in her FouNDer’s journey. As director of a community-based mental health program, she was horrified by the alarming number of referrals for three- and four-year-old children. As a parent educator at a children’s hospital, she observed wealthy parents playing with their children, learning nurturing parenting practices. As the director of community outreach programs at the Louisiana Children’s Museum, she worked with the director of education, Christine Neely, on a program for parents to encourage kids to become lifelong readers.

“During our sessions with parents, we got so many questions on child development, we added 30 minutes to answer questions. The parents wanted what was best for their kids and were hungry for information. It made Christine and I think about what more we could do to support parents in their role as teachers and nurturers,” Richardson says. “There was no place in downtown New Orleans for low-income parents to go for help, let alone a safe place to learn about parenting and child development and not be judged.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Richardson and Neely came to the conclusion that making a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children required a preventive approach that involved both parents and their children and removed the barriers of ethnicity, geography and income level. The women committed themselves to creating  a place where they could do brain-building activities with families in a safe place.

It was Neely who found the Propeller Incubator, a nonprofit incubator for social innovation. The women pitched their idea to the Propeller team. They loved it and invited the women to participate in their incubator. Laughs Richardson, “I said, ‘Oh my God! I guess we’re going to have to do this.’”

The idea was TrainingGrounds, an early child development model that provided a free community-based play center called We PLAY Center to train and coach parents, teachers and other caregivers, while little ones play. While at Propeller, Richardson and Neely participated in a pitch competition, placing fifth.  The following year they pitched again, and this time won first. The $5,000 in prize money paid for their  startup’s insurance.

Meanwhile, they applied for a program sponsored by 4.0 for K-12 startups. When organizers learned TrainingGrounds was for  birth through age five, they extended their rules to include early childhood and awarded Richardson and Neely $10,000 to open their center. “At this point, we had no funding or grants,” Richardson says. “All we had was a passion and desire to be successful.”

TrainingGrounds opened in downtown New Orleans. Then began a grassroots campaign that literally grabbed people off the street. Richardson smiles at the memory. “I’d take business cards and fliers and invite people at bus stops. I’d hang out in the Pampers section of the Dollar Store and Walmart and invite parents. I’d approach people at grocery stores. I’d then visit WIC clinics and pediatrician officers and ask for referrals. I wanted people to know who we were and what we were doing.”

TrainingGrounds held a soft opening in April 2017 and, says Richardson, it was such a huge success, people have been coming ever since. “At first, we were open Tuesdays and Thursdays. We then expanded to Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We now have programming Monday through Friday. We are a community of parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and children.”

The idea behind Training Grounds is simple: let children be children and play freely in a safe place. But as simple as it sounds, parents don’t always get it. Richardson found they had to teach parents how to play and that meant letting the child lead. “We tell parents they are the co-stars in their child’s movie. Give them a toy airplane and let them go. It’s O.K. if the airplane is a monster, or a drumstick is a magic wand, or they want to make a dinosaur fly. What’s important is to be in the moment with your little one.”

Infants are included in TrainingGrounds’ fun. “Don’t just read to them,” advises Richardson, “Sing to them, wiggle your fingers, clap. Have conversation with your baby. Their smiles and movements are their side of the conversation and are important for language development. During the first five years, we should focus on play, experiences, connecting, and relationships with children. This builds their brain and lays that solid, positive foundation.”

It didn’t take long to see changes in parents and children. “We saw kids’ eyes brighten up and  parents get more confident. It was exciting seeing kids in an environment where they can explore and have fun,” Richardson says. “But empowering parents with information and playing with their kids is essential. When parents show no interest in their kids, that’s when you lose them.”

The story of Chief and his grandson Ryan is a common one. Chief is the two-year-old’s primary caregiver during the day. Already, the little boy had been labeled “bad” and “hard-headed.” Concerned, Chief brought him to TrainingGrounds for help through the We PLAY Center. Chief’s idea of how adults and kids should interact was old school and so he was a tough disciplinarian. Chief was introduced to new strategies to foster independence with limits and how to engage with his grandson, so their time together was enjoyable for both.

Chief and Ryan attended We PLAY for two years. Ryan is now enrolled in kindergarten and doing well. “If they had spent all of their time at home, it would have been stressful, and neither would have learned the skills that contributed to Ryan’s success during his first year of school. We PLAY gave Chief and Ryan a place to come play, learn and grow together,” Richardson says.

Five years into the TrainingGrounds, the nonprofit’s services have expanded. They provide referrals to other community resources available to families. If they observe children with developmental delays, they encourage parents to get them tested. TrainingGrounds now offers support groups for autism, breastfeeding and postpartum depression.

In May, TrainingGrounds will open a 1,300-square-foot expansion called the We Connect Family Resource Hub. The new space, located next door to the We PLAY Center, includes office space, meeting rooms and expanded resources for families.

The biggest challenge to date for Richardson has been funding. In the early days, she and Neely bootstrapped their startup. Today, 80 percent of their funding comes from grants and donations. They also have contracts with the City of New Orleans. Additional income is generated by fee-for-service training to other early childhood programs.

The biggest win, says Richardson, is changing parent-child interaction in New Orleans. “I’m so proud of the number of kids leaving us happy and school-ready and the number of parents feeling supported and confident. TrainingGrounds is sustainable, and we’re now working on taking our model to other cities.”

Richardson’s advice to future FouNDers is this: Just do it. Take the first step no matter how little or how big. If your heart is in the right place, you will find momentum.”

She also offers special advice to parents. “Early experiences matter.  pending quality time with your child starting at birth—talking, singing, dancing, and playing—helps build positive connections that contribute to healthy brain development and solid social emotional skills.”