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After 25 years, Melrose co-op still plays well with families

Lucas Little tests the slide at Melrose Family Place, which retains a homey feel 25 years after its launch at Green Street Baptist Church.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Lucas Little tests the slide at Melrose Family Place, which retains a homey feel 25 years after its launch at Green Street Baptist Church.

Feeling alone, isolated, vulnerable. Raising your infant or toddler without support from your own family, miles away. Wishing to bond with other new parents and compare notes to find out whether you’re doing this parenting thing “right.”

The reasons why new parents join the Melrose Family Room have not changed much since 1988, when then-new Melrose moms Patsy Catsos and Rebecca Mooney formed the cooperative gathering place.

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“I remember the moment nursing my daughter, Katharine, and looking out the window and feeling so alone and isolated,” Mooney said. “I thought, ‘Other moms must feel this way.’ ”

Spotting a story in the Boston Parents Paper about the Concord Family Room, a now-defunct group for parents of infants and young children, Mooney thought, “That’s it. That’s what I want to start in Melrose.”

After learning how the Concord co-op space — filled with toys, books, snacks, couches, arts and crafts, and play equipment — was run, Mooney tried rallying other new parents to replicate it in Melrose.

One mother thought the idea sounded “like a zoo,” Mooney said, laughing, but Catsos thought it would be great.

Au Pair Angelina Spurk played with 6-month-old Neve Brady, right, a masked Quentin Brady, 2, and Hugh Brady 4.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Au Pair Angelina Spurk played with 6-month-old Neve Brady, right, a masked Quentin Brady, 2, and Hugh Brady 4.

They were part of a small group of moms taking turns hosting weekly gatherings at their homes. But Catsos said she wanted more, “a place to connect with more people and have a place to go to several times a week.”

Together, the women worked to transform the idea into reality. They announced in the local paper that they would be meeting at the library to discuss the idea. About 15 moms showed, some with their babies. A planning committee was formed.

Approaching several churches and schools in Melrose about renting space for a full-time, dedicated play group, they hit the jackpot, Mooney said, with the pastor of Green Street Baptist Church.

The Rev. Larry Starr told them, “You’re doing the work of angels,” she said.

“It seemed like such an important thing to do,” Starr said recently. “The fact is, neighborhoods don’t function the way they used to when I grew up, with more parents working.”

For Starr, the idea was a no-brainer. He had space — a small, unused corner classroom on the third floor of the church building — and though it was not affiliated with the church, the parents group would allow his congregation to serve the community.

The planning committee cleaned and painted the room, and a lawyer in town provided pro bono help to establish a nonprofit organization.

In October 1988, the Melrose Family Room opened its doors.

About 40 families belonged in the early days, Mooney said, coming not only from Melrose, but also neighboring towns — Saugus, Stoneham, Wakefield, Malden, even Newburyport.

Today, the Melrose Family Room counts 112 member families, including 68 as “friends” (a partial membership allowing use of the room once a month and on weekends for lower dues). Another 70 are on a waiting list for the cooperative, parent-run gathering space for new and young families with children up to 6 years old. Annual dues are $175.

“We tapped into an unmet need. It was a sanity saver,” Catsos said, especially during winter months.

To mark the organization’s 25th anniversary, a potluck reunion dinner for “alumni” is being held at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Baptist church, 179 Green St. Catsos, who now lives in Maine, and others from as far as Chicago and New Jersey plan on attending.

“It was like raising our children in a big extended family,” said Beth Yourgrau, a Melrose resident who brought her twins, a boy and a girl then toddlers and now 26 years old, to the space on day one.

Key figures in the nonprofit resource for parents, children, and caregivers include Anna Bastian, Rebecca Mooney, and Janet Nevin, backed by the Rev. Larry Starr.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Key figures in the nonprofit resource for parents, children, and caregivers include Anna Bastian, Rebecca Mooney, and Janet Nevin, backed by the Rev. Larry Starr.

“It made a profound difference in our family life,” said Yourgrau, who established circle times and Friday field trips during her time there. “All my friends were in Cambridge and far away. I’m a social person and my daughter needed to get out and about.

“We raised each other to be the best parents we could be, and still be happy, supporting each other’s evolution and confidence, and fine-tuning each other,” Yourgrau said,

The appeal of the room prompted her family to move from Revere to Melrose, Janet Nevin said.

After spotting an ad for the Melrose Family Room in a local paper shortly after it began, Nevin visited with her son and was instantly hooked by the sense of community.

Most amazing, Nevin said, is that most of the women she met then are among her closest friends today. Even their children, now in their 20s, remain friends as well.

“What I love about the Family Room is that the friendships remind me of my friendships from childhood,” said Lisa Weldon. The Melrose resident and her husband, John, have been members ever since the oldest of their three children, Daniella, now 12, was born. This fall, their youngest, Gabriella, starts kindergarten.

Over the years, things have changed, Weldon said, but not much. The room is larger now, measuring 25 by 52 feet. There are new paint colors — pale yellow and light green — on the walls. The room is now “nut-free.” Air conditioning has been added, making it a viable place to play indoors on steamy summer days.

Bulletin boards list member responsibilities, guidelines for “being a good friend,” cleanup instructions, and family photos. Metal cabinets holding first aid items, arts and crafts supplies, nut-free snacks, and cleaning gear stand next to a small refrigerator, microwave, and single-serving coffee maker.

The room is loosely divided into three sections. Brightly colored linoleum floor tiles mark the “snacks/crafts” area, complete with three knee-high, round wooden tables, and high chairs.

Blue carpeting covers the remaining two-thirds of the room, with comfy, worn couches in the “rest/reading/infant” middle section for moms to nurse their babies, and parents to sit, chat, and watch as their toddlers read books and play with toys.

Larger toys and play equipment occupy older children at the far end, including a mini-kitchen, wooden log cabin, a wooden train table, and plastic climbing gym and slide.

With toys scattered around, it feels like “home” to its members, including new moms Andrea Robin of Stoneham, Kristine Roberts of Salem, and Marika McKnight of Melrose. They originally met via the Meetup website and formed their own group.

Last year, while Googling “moms groups” and “play groups” in search of bigger indoor play space, they discovered the Melrose Family Room.

The cycle of the co-op venture continues. Next fall, Robin will be the events coordinator and McKnight the new president.

For more information on the Melrose Family Room’s 25th anniversary potluck reunion, call 781-979-0373. Information on the organization can be found at www.melrosefamilyroom.org.

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@ gmail.com.
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