NO LONGER STRANGERS

While she watched her 17-month-old son sit in the playground mulch, Deborah McElgin tried to sneak in a few words with grown-ups.

Her son Thomas could be filtering dirt through his fingers one second, then exploring the baseball field’s bleachers and grass in a hurry.

“It’s haphazard,” McElgin said as Thomas began to toddle away. “You squeak out little moments of conversation before you have to run off.”

For stay-at-home parents, any time with other adults is precious. For parents who are new to town and have few connections, those moments of conversation are even more important.

To these parents, members of the New 2 Baton Rouge Playgroup, they can help to forge a feeling of community.

Thousands of newcomers move to East Baton Rouge Parish each year. A little more than 4 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish residents — 18,740 people — were newcomers in 2011, the last year for which data are available, according to U.S. Census Bureau’s America Community Survey.

Just after McElgin and her husband, a physics professor, moved to Baton Rouge from Dallas in May, she began searching the Internet to find activities. She typed in “new to Baton Rouge” and found a parents’ group just for new residents.

“It was just a fluke that I found it,” she said. “I thought it would bring up things to do when you’re here and things to go see.”

Within a week of their move, they were in a play group with regular mornings at parks in the area. Soon, she was seeing people from the play group at the grocery store.

“All of a sudden, when you’re running into people you know, even if you don’t know them well but just recognize them, you feel like you’re connected,” she said.

The play group led to July 4 parties, Halloween festivities and plans for Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving with three people just doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving,” McElgin said she told her husband.

With their nearest family a 12-hour drive away, the play group has become a kind of family to them.

In late October, McElgin and Thomas met with Helen Li and her 16-month-old son, Alex, at the Perkins Road Park. Li moved to Baton Rouge two years ago from New Jersey when her husband began working at LSU in the mathematics department.

Li had reservations about leaving her son regularly in the care of others, but she wanted to meet more parents of young children in the area.

“We just want them to know they’re safe,” Li said. “We want to gradually let them go, not just put them in the playpen and leave. They don’t understand why the mom leaves and they’re alone.”

At the Perkins Road Park, Li and McElgin followed their boys as they crawled over the jungle gym and climbed up the slides. While other young mothers in the group arrived, Alex began wandering among the cypress trees that dot the land south of the park where Dawson Creek runs.

Their play dates at the park, museum trips and “Milk with Mike” afternoons — meeting for milk at Mike the Tiger’s habitat, then walking around LSU’s campus — are scheduled on MeetUp.com, where newcomers can find them. They also schedule mothers’ nights out and occasional lunches.

Established in 2010, the group’s reins have been passed down as parents’ children get older. McElgin, who is now a group administrator, said once children reach school age, parents become less involved with the playgroup.

After a tryout of a couple of play dates, members pay dues of $10 per six months to help pay for website fees.

Even parents who moved to the area years ago find a need for the group. Erin Rice, who came to Baton Rouge three years ago from Gainesville, Fla., joined the group after her son, Ethan, was born last year.

She tried a few different groups, but the people in New to Baton Rouge kept her interested.

“This one worked out because it was people who didn’t know each other and didn’t know their way around Baton Rouge,” she said.

The occasional afternoon with other moms provides a much needed time with someone other than Ethan.

“As a stay-at-home mom, there are just so many things you can do by yourselves,” Rice said. “When they’re really little and not interacting with people, it’s nice to have some other moms to interact with.”