Skills for a Lifetime: With Little Friends for Peace, Couple Has Dedicated Decades to Nonviolence Education

By McCarthy, Colman | National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2016 | Go to article overview

Skills for a Lifetime: With Little Friends for Peace, Couple Has Dedicated Decades to Nonviolence Education


McCarthy, Colman, National Catholic Reporter


WASHINGTON * At the far end of a narrow second-floor hallway in the Perry School Community Services Center, a three-story brick building in a low-income neighborhood that's a short hike from the U.S. Capitol, is the Peace Room. At the top of the door is a painting of a wide-winged dove. Inches below are words that might have been lifted from a bumper sticker: "Stand for peace." "May peace prevail on earth."

Open the door and in a room no larger than 25 feet by 15 feet, shelves are packed with peace books and more painted messages: "Check feelings, it's OK for both of us to win." "Peace train, hop aboard." "Identify the problem."

Since 1998, the room has been the operational hive of Little Friends for Peace. The directors and co-founders are Mary Joan and Jerry Park, who have earned a revered place in the nation's peace education movement.

This is the 35th year of Little Friends for Peace, a nonprofit that began in 1981 when Mary Joan Park, in her early 30s, opened her home in St. Paul, Minn., to a group of 5-year-olds. They were told stories about peacemakers, and were taught the ways of cooperation, the benefits of sharing and kindness, and practical lessons of conflict resolution: skills for a lifetime.

At the Perry Center in early January, Mary Joan remembered the early days of her academic efforts to increase peace and decrease violence: "When I was doing child care in my home, a little boy of 5 said to me, 'Mrs. Park, you aren't going to live long because you don't like guns and there are a lot of bad guys out there and they are going to get you.'"

Another recollection: "For a time, we had a pregnant teenage girl living with us. She said once, 'I'm glad I'm pregnant because I probably am going to die in a nuclear war in two years and I want to experience what it is to be pregnant.'"

Thirty-five years ago, it was unlikely that either Mary Joan, now 67, or Jerry Park, 74, foresaw how expansive Little Friends for Peace would become. Currently, with the help of some 70 high school and college volunteers, it rims educational programs in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. This includes classroom teaching; training workshops; afterschool peace clubs; evening adult courses; seminars in addiction centers; retreats; intergenerational summer peace camps; and an annual weeklong seminar in El Salvador.

The couple estimates that more than 10,000 children and adults have been served. In 2008, Pax Christi USA honored the Parks with its Teachers of Peace Award.

"Peace education is education that helps find inner peace," Mary Joan said. "It touches on social, emotional and spiritual wellness. It is education that helps discover our gifts and talents. If we want peace, we have to experience, learn and practice it."

Mary Joan, one of eight children in a Catholic activist family in Elmhurst, Ill., earned a teaching degree in 1970 from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee. (Last October, the school, now a university, awarded her the alumna Madonna Medal for community service.)

Getting her footing, she taught seventh and eighth grades at St. Isaac Jogues Elementary School in Lisle, Ill. For a year, she toiled for minority children at the Ascension Elementary School in Minneapolis.

In 1973, she met Jerry Park at a warehouse that stored textbooks for religion teachers. They married four years later, and the couple has raised six children. The oldest, Sarah, 37, earned a master's in peace studies at the University of Notre Dame and is now an immigration lawyer in Atlanta. The youngest, Timothy, 27, has a degree in the culinary arts and runs a pastry order company, Timmy's Pieces of Peace. He serves as the chef at the family's summer peace camps and afterschool programs.

Jerry Park, raised in Milwaukee and the son of Navy physician who was part of the medical team at Pearl Harbor in 1943, entered a diocesan seminary at 17 in 1958. …

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