Opinion: Volunteers Made This Movement. It’s Time to Compensate Us for Our Work.

Heather Cantamessa Photo

By Heather Cantamessa, CEO, Re-Unify Parent Solutions, LLC, The United States

It’s true, we parent advocates are driven by our passion and rooted in our compassion to walk alongside parents and make sure that they feel heard and valued during their experience in the child protection system. 

We as parents will take time away from our own families that we worked so hard to get back to work for free or at low-paying jobs in order to have the opportunity to positively affect others. The impact that we have is rarely achieved by many child welfare employees who cannot do what we do and are in full-salary positions. 

I realized this throughout my several years doing volunteer advocacy work before I found the courage and encouragement to charge for my time and perspective. 

I’ve spent many hours sitting in meetings as the token Parent Advocate wondering if my voice made any difference to the others around the table or the decisions being made. I have traveled to speak several times for free, losing money from missing work, when others were making money for their attendance and off of my participation. 

I have sat on an insane number of committees (nine at one time) and offered my ideas, elbow grease and experience for free. One job I had for four years was in a temporary position as “extra help” that I was told “I should be grateful to have.” I was very grateful and I thought I would have to settle for a low-paying job that didn’t value parents like me because the alternative seemed worse: stepping away from my calling all together. 

I gave it one last leap before giving up. My dream was to have a meaningful career being of service while supporting my family AND to work with other parents with lived experience and sufficiently compensate them for their time. 

Over time, as my reputation as an effective speaker, trainer, program developer, manager and advocate grew, I was offered many small projects and short-term work and decided to get a business license to manage the contracts that I accepted. 

I found that independently contracting allowed me a ton of autonomy. It also allowed me to develop meaningful projects through which I could pay other parents.

One was a survey of parents’ perspectives on visitation. Through that project I was able to compensate parents for sharing about their visit experiences and I could pay parent advocates to administer the anonymous surveys. 

At other times, organizations contracted with me to present at conferences. I was able to then sub-contract with other parent advocates to present alongside me. 

When I went back to school, I applied for the Students Serving Washington award, which is given out to support the development of a solution-oriented idea that addresses a social justice issue. I was awarded $10,000 for designing and facilitating a class for parents experiencing the child welfare system while incarcerated. A large portion of the award money went to compensate other parent advocates who worked on the final project with me. 

I am currently volunteering my time and collaborating with a child welfare network administrator to budget in paid parent advocate positions at visitation agencies. Yes, I continue to do volunteer work. But I am also compensated for most of my time. It’s a good balance. 

Child welfare parent advocacy is a movement that grows out of our passion to make change and some of our work will always be volunteer. But I also believe that there is space in this movement for parent advocates to be paid. When a parent delivers a piece of or an entire training, speaks at a conference, provides advocacy at an agency, consults on a matter—essentially work that others in the industry get paid for—we should be paid as well. 

Compensation allows parent advocates to provide for our families while we develop innovative solutions. I believe it is critical to compensate parent advocates for our unique expertise.

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