Ann Ellwood believed parents could use some extra guidance — and support, too.
She became a pioneer and national leader in the field of family support services by founding in the 1970s a network of peer-to-peer parenting groups in the Twin Cities. That effort, MELD (initially known as Minnesota Early Learning Design), expanded across the United States and was replicated in a handful of other countries. Over the years, her organization helped tens of thousands of parents navigate issues such as children’s health, nutrition, discipline, safe toys and other concerns.
Ellwood, who was MELD’s executive director, died Feb. 27 in Bedford, Mass., from advanced dementia. She was 92.
“She got a national movement going and I think she made a real difference in America,” said former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Mondale initially reached out to Ellwood when he was a U.S. senator from Minnesota serving on a committee on children and youth and encouraged her to work on a project in the field. With funding from a Lilly Endowment grant, she interviewed experts and came up with the parenting groups, a novel idea at a time when most programs focused solely on children.
“Our philosophy is simple,” she once said in an interview. “We believe that if you can empower parents to deal with their own problems, you can change the whole family.”
Held in church basements and community centers, the classes were led by parents who came from similar demographics. Many of them had a special focus, such as young mothers or fathers, Hmong or Latino parents, deaf parents and other specialized needs.
Born Elizabeth Ann Schwenk in Lebanon, Pa., Ellwood went by Ann from a young age. Her family moved to Oakland, Calif., when she was a teenager.
She received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and political science from the University of California-Berkeley. She was a kindergarten teacher in San Francisco for a few years before moving to Minneapolis with then-husband Dr. Paul Ellwood, who became well known for championing the concept of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) in the 1970s. They divorced in 1990.
Ellwood taught in St. Paul for a couple of years before having children of her own. When they were older, she decided to go back to work, which was a big deal in those days, according to her daughter Cynthia Ellwood of Milwaukee.
“She was inspired by the women’s movement — it really spoke to her,” she said. “She really wanted to make a difference that was truly substantial.”
Ellwood worked at the Greater Minneapolis Day Care Association before launching MELD.
She retired in 1995 and received various accolades and awards over the years, including the Hubert H. Humphrey Public Leadership Award from the University of Minnesota in 2005.
She also was an intrepid downhill skier and once famously chased a bear away during a family camping trip by waving her arms and roaring. Throughout her life, she kept in close touch with her friends. “Circles of women were always critical to her well-being,” said Cynthia Ellwood. “She had these groups of friends stretching back to high school and college. They got together every year.”
At age 83, Ellwood left Minneapolis and moved to an assisted-living facility in Massachusetts to be closer to family.
Other survivors include a son, David, and another daughter, Deborah, both of Massachusetts; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In lieu of a service, her family invites friends to visit an online memorial at ForeverMissed.com.