Heather Ditillo knows firsthand the stress of being a busy parent of young children.
She also has a master's degree in social work and experience teaching adults.
It's a combination that fits well into her role as a consultant with OneKindWord, a program through Family Resources Inc. that she describes as "an innovative program to prevent and treat child abuse, which is the mission of Family Resources."
The Bellevue resident helped create the program and is a teacher and facilitator for it.
OneKindWord teaches people who work at public places such as stores, parks, museums, schools and zoos how to help parents when their child throws a temper tantrum in public or when they are stressed and overwhelmed with parenting duties.
"When we see a child having a meltdown or a child standing dangerously in a shopping cart, we don't know what to do," Mrs. Ditillo said of bystanders. "We are all kind of helpless and freeze when we see others in this situation. What we want to do is enable people to assist these parents."
The program was created in 2000 by Walter Smith, executive director of the Family Resources, and the late Fred Rogers, known to millions as host of public television's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Family Resources was working with Mr. Rogers' company, Family Communications, and had developed a training video, Mrs. Ditillo said. "The video showed how people could assist parents with their children through gentle intervention."
Like many parents, Mrs. Ditillo measures the length of her involvement with the project according to the ages of her sons.
"I came aboard the project in the fall of 2002, when my boys were almost 3 and 5," she said. As a project consultant, she worked with Mr. Smith and others to create an updated video and a training program. "We knew it was a great concept, but we asked ourselves, 'How can we get everyday people to understand and use this concept?' "
In addition to the master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a bachelor's degree in psychology with a major in child development from Dickenson College, Mrs. Ditillo was a Head Start teacher and worked with adult learners. That background, coupled with her parenting experience, has served her well in her work with Family Resources.
"Let's just say that my younger son has always been an intense and loud child. I was living it," she said.
But although Mrs. Ditillo had the experience and education, she was stymied when it came to a theme for the program.
She never had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Rodgers, who became ill and died in 2003, shortly after she joined the project. "I was devastated," Mrs. Ditillo said. "I never got to meet him and I wanted to know his thoughts and plans for the program."
She struggled with ideas and would shoot off e-mails to colleagues in the middle of the night. "I would send an e-mail at 4 a.m. and get ones that would say, 'Heather, just sleep at night, please!' "
One day, she sat down with her sons, Logan and Theo, who are now 10 and 8, to watch "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
"What is the first thing you see on the show? The signal light. I saw it and thought, 'That's it! A signal light!' "
Using a traffic light as the symbol, the group created the "signal light" concept that gives people three steps to recognize and help with a potentially difficult child and parent conflict.
"We want people to 'stop' and recognize when they may be able to help a parent or child; take a moment to 'pause,' think and get ready to assist; and three, try 'one kind word' to assist," she said.
The concept doesn't always mean stepping in or talking to the parents, she added. Part of the program teaches people to recognize which of three states the situation falls into: an overwhelmed parent, a preoccupied parent or an angry parent.
"Getting involved may be as simple as standing closer to a shopping cart where a child is standing and in a dangerous situation while the parent is busy with another child," she said.
As part of the project, Mrs. Ditillo took park in the creation of a new video.
"That was a lot of fun. We filmed the video at the Giant Eagle in the Waterworks from midnight to 6 a.m. Here we are filming a video about child abuse and we had children there in the middle of the night," she said with a laugh. "We had to get all sorts of waivers and special permission to make it."
The video is used as part of the training program that Mrs. Ditillo has been conducting in the pilot project at The Pittsburgh Zoo. That project just finished, with Mrs. Ditillo training nearly 400 zoo employees over the past year.
Jocelyn Antenucci, a director of Family Resources, said the pilot program received rave reviews.
"Based on our feedback, we can say that we can really impact how people can help parents in difficult situations," she said.
A resident of Hampton and a parent, Mrs. Antenucci said Mrs. Ditillo's background in adult learning was a huge asset to the OneKindWord program. "She is enthusiastic and understands the concept," she said.
Both Mrs. Ditillo and Mrs. Antenucci hope the program not only spreads through Pittsburgh but makes a national impact. "We want it to be a regional showpiece. We want to put the message out in our region that one kind word can make a difference to someone," Mrs. Antenucci said.
The two are looking for more groups to take the training.
"We have been talking with a major grocery store chain and other places, such as museums and amusement parks. We feel that anywhere large groups of families with children gather will be the ideal sites for the program," Mrs. Ditillo said.
The Web site for OneKindWord www.onekindword.org.
Kathleen Ganster is a freelance writer.