WEIRTON - When Beth McCarthy was contacted about having won an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to represent the state of West Virginia at Parenting magazine's third-annual Mom Congress on Education and Learning conference, she assumed it was a hoax.
"I thought it was a scam and deleted the e-mail," McCarthy said.
But it was true - and quite legit and quite deserving in the estimation of the friend who had nominated her - Laura Rauch of Follansbee, who contacted McCarthy a few days later to confirm the news.
Beth McCarthy of Weirton with her two daughters, Gabriella, 4, left, and Laynie, 6
-- Photo by Janice R. Kiaski
"Laura called the house talking a mile a minute on how I had 'won.' My first reaction was that I was a little embarrassed and thought 'oh my goodness, what did you say about me?'" McCarthy remembers thinking.
Rauch had seen the magazine article advertising the Mom Congress and decided on the sly to throw McCarthy's name in the hat.
"After I had gotten over the shock, I was honored that I was nominated and thrilled to represent West Virginia as well as St. Paul School," said McCarthy, who was chosen for her outstanding contributions and dedication to improving local schools.
McCarthy, who resides in Weirton with her husband, Jason, is a "very active member" in the PTO at St. Paul School where their daughters, Laynie, 6, and Gabriella, 4, are pupils. She also volunteers in the school computer lab, coaches youth soccer and cheering and serves on the executive board for St. Paul Christian Mothers.
At the Mom Congress, McCarthy was among the 51 delegates representing each state and the District of Columbia, having been selected by Parenting from a record-setting number of applications submitted through Parenting.com. Each received not only the paid trip to the nation's Capitol, but also "the opportunity to connect with national leaders in education, Parenting editors and past Mom Congress delegates to exchange ideas on how to improve the nation's schools, according to a press release.
Parenting magazine launched the Mom Congress initiative in 2009 "to celebrate and connect parents working to improve our nation's schools. Each month, Parenting and Parenting.com give readers and the 25,000-plus Mom Congress members updated educational news and resources to help them make a difference and bring about positive changes for students," the news release noted.
The theme of the 2012 Mom Congress conference was "Teach Me Something New," dedicated to fostering the "crucially important relationship between parents and their children's teachers."
For the third consecutive year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan headlined the roster of education and advocacy leaders who addressed the delegates. Faculty members from Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies - the Mom Congress educational provider - led sessions at the conference, offering advocacy training workshops to help the delegates take what they learned there and put it to work in their own communities.
McCarthy found the conference to be "information packed."
"We talked about parent-teacher connections, PTAs, fundraising, school lunch nutrition, physical education, communication with our children and immunizations, but the one thing I found very interesting was a more global issue from Anu Partanen, a journalist-author from Finland," McCarthy said.
"She shared some of her research on what works in her country's education and the differences between Finland and the United States. I was amazed to hear that their children do not start school until they are 7. There is no standardized testing. No homework is assigned. The school day is shorter than ours. Teachers are highly trained and left to do their job the best way they see fit - they do not teach to the test. It seemed as if Finland was even surprised that they were among the highest scoring when compared to other countries. So bottom line, what can we learn from our global communities to better assist our children and their future?" McCarthy said.
"Empowered and inspired by attending the conference, past delegates have returned to their states to create significant change in their school systems, affecting the lives of thousands of children nationwide," according to the news release.
In 2010, for example, delegates worked with Parenting editors at the conference to create the "Lesson Plan for Change," a blueprint to empower parents to get more involved in their children's education that appeared in Parenting School Years magazine and the bestselling companion guide to the documentary "Waiting for Superman."
The 2011 class of delegates' accomplishments include:
The creation of a nationwide book drive in support of early literacy, "Books Make it Better";
Recognition through the White House "Champions of Change" program;
The improvement of several school lunch programs across the country; and
The development of new educational resources and programs in nearly every state, from early science education workshops in Florida to a new parental advocacy program, Camp Educate, in California.
"It's amazing how quickly this diverse group of Mom Congress delegates became a little family. I guess it makes perfect sense since we all have one common passion - our children," McCarthy said.
Although the conference itself is over, the networking isn't.
"The 2012 delegates will continue to keep in touch through a private Facebook page. When national opportunities arise, information will be passed down the line to each delegate. As the West Virginia delegate, I can help implement some of those programs in our community. There is so much to choose from, but I think my first project will be volunteering with a pilot program that is all about teaching kids to give back at an early age called 'Big Hearted Families,'" McCarthy said, noting that individuals can learn more about Mom Congress, connect with other parents working to improve schools in the United States, swap ideas or discover how to make a difference in a child's school by logging onto the web address www.parenting.com/momcongress.
McCarthy, the daughter of Robert and Jean Robinson of Weirton, is a 1993 graduate of Weir High School who earned her bachelor's degree from Marshall University where her focus was exercise physiology. She earned her master's degree there as well, with emphasis on cardiac, pulmonary and vascular rehabilitation.
As a mother, McCarthy identified her greatest joys in parenting are her daughters' "giggles and excitement for life, watching them grow into who they want to become."
Balanced against that, however, are the challenges - "whining, getting them to use their manners, trying something new and teaching responsibility. Just when you think you've got a handle on the whole parenting thing, they grow up just a little bit more and things change. New chapter. New challenge," she said.
McCarthy describes herself as a "normal" kind of mom - "forgetful, tired and half crazy, but loving every minute of it."
As for her philosophy of parenting, she said, "We try to set a good example for the girls and teach the skills to help them decide between right and wrong. We love them, spend time with them and do the best we can do to make them well-rounded happy little girls."
She has patterned much of her parenting from her mother's style.
"My mom was a stay-at-home mom until I was in the eighth grade," McCarthy began. "She spent many hours at dance class, on the baseball field, at 4-H and camping with us. She was there when you needed her, but gave us the independence to make mistakes. She never sits down and is always doing six projects at once. She is extremely talented in the craft and painting department. She always welcomed my friends into our home, jumped into a car pool with the other moms or organizes the family reunion filled with sack races, turtle races and an ice cream sundae bar," said McCarthy, whose daughters take dance, gymnastics, soccer and cheering and sing in the St. Paul Children's Choir.
McCarthy said she is "very interested in our community and how it serves our youth. I love to seek out kid-friendly activities and programs and share this knowledge with all my mom friends. If someone is doing something good for the kids, I want everyone to participate and get involved so that it encourages our community to do more and offer more. Even though we live in a small town, I want my kids to have the opportunity to feel like they live in a bigger city."
Asked what would be the one thing she'd like to get across to readers about her experience at the Mom Congress, McCarthy said, "The most common theme among all who spoke at the conference is that we as moms have the power to make change. If you want to get something done, ask a room full of moms passionate about their kids for their input. As a parent, we were encouraged to demand high standards for our children and come along side teachers to make the best possible education system. Mom Congress 2012 gave us ideas and tools to be effective change-makers in our communities."
(Kiaski can be contacted at email@example.com.)