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Bright Ideas

Educating parents gives children their best shot

Colleen Lucas, left, and Ren play with shape puzzles at Great Start.

Rohan Sengupta, 2, plays in the corn pit with some of the other children at Great Start.

Great Start is a great place for kids to be social and also is a place for parents to connect and chat with other parents.

Ricquya, left, and Charles Wilbon play with their son Charles at Great Start.

Joey Vavrosky plays in the ball pit at Great Start.

The Great Start Plus program is designed to help Kalamazoo County families whose life situations put their preschool children at high risk of school failure. Margaret DeRitter talks to parents who are learning they can be their child's best teacher.
Marci Beebe sees some rough situations when she visits homes as a parent educator: poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, substance abuse, hoarding, relationship problems.

"Some of the worst-case scenarios I’ve seen have been mothers just not bonding with their babies," says Beebe. "They didn’t form an attachment to their own mothers and don’t know how to do it."

Sometimes Beebe visits single mothers struggling with depression who can’t take care of themselves on a regular basis, let alone take care of the house and kids. Or she might visit a home with a child who has been exposed to drugs or alcohol before birth and is therefore at risk of developmental delays.

Beebe is one of four parent educators working in the Great Start Plus program of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA), each with a caseload of 16 to 20 families. The program is designed to help Kalamazoo County families whose life situations put their preschool children at high risk of attachment disorders, learning difficulties, developmental delays, and school failure. Many have been referred to Great Start Plus by Child Protective Services, but their participation is voluntary.

"We have a lot of parents who’d be lost if we didn’t have this program," says Beebe.

Beebe, like the other parent educators, helps these parents find support resources, teaches them basic parenting and household skills, and makes sure their children are meeting normal developmental milestones. "I help parents understand they are their children’s first and best teacher," she says.

If children aren’t meeting milestones, she can refer them to one of the Great Start programs for children with special needs: Early On or the Famiy Infant Toddler (FIT) Program, which employ speech, occupational and physical therapists, teachers and special consultants.

Altogether, KRESA offers four Great Start programs for children from birth to age 3. All are aimed at making sure children are nurtured in safe environments and will be able to meet their full potential. The fourth program -- Ready, Set, Succeed! -- is for any parent who wants to know more about child development and parenting techniques, says Great Start Program Administrator Kristi Carambula. Last year Great Start served 698 families.

Funding Challenges

Most of the programs involve weekly or every-other-week home visits, while Ready, Set, Succeed! starts with one home visit and is followed up by monthly mailings. It used to involve ongoing home visits and a developmental screening every other month, but "we don’t have as much funding now," says Carambula.

Funding for Ready, Set, Succeed! comes from each of the nine public school districts in the region and a small grant from the Michigan Department of Education; Great Start Plus is funded primarily by grants from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the John and Rosemary Brown Family Foundation, Early On gets federal funding; and FIT, for children with the most serious developmental delays, gets state special-ed funding.

"We’ve been serving more families on the special-education side and less on the parent-education side," said Carambula. "It’s not that the demand is less for parent education, it’s that the funding is less."

The age range of the children served by all four programs has been narrowed in recent years. It’s now birth to age 3 instead of birth to age 5. "Part of it is funding," says Beebe, "but the other thing is there are a lot of preschool programs for 4- and 5-year olds."

Inclusive Play Groups

On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, families from any of the four programs can bring their children to play groups at KRESA’s West Campus, at the corner of Croyden Avenue and Drake Road.

"Part of the intent is to have an inclusionary thing for families of all abilities to feel comfortable attending," Carambula says. "It gives parents an opportunity to know other parents with children of similar ages."

Play groups meet at other locations too, but the groups at KRESA’s West Campus are the most well attended. A recent Tuesday play group there drew 47 families with a total of about 70 children, says Carambula.

The next day, about 20 adults and 20 kids attend the play group. Kids play on little plastic slides, push shapes through matching holes, wander in and out of a play house, and play with toys in a "sand box" full of corn kernels.

"I’ve met every single parent friend I have here," says Colleen Lucas, 32, who has 1- and 3-year-old sons and has been bringing her children to the play groups for two years. "I’ve met people I can hang out with during the day, and that alone has been priceless."

Danielle Vavrosky, 30, also has made friends through the play group. She connected with Great Start when she requested a screening to make sure her son Joey, who was born prematurely and is now 2, was on track. They’ve been coming to the play groups since last winter.  

"It’s been great," Vavrosky says. "It’s a way to be out of the house, and the kids can play and be independent while you’re watching them." And she likes that the leaders switch up activities for the kids. "Last week there were little cars they could drive. Sometimes there’s drawing or painting. In the summer the kids can be outside and play with water tables or bubbles."

Jose Velarde-Chan, a 39-year-old stay-at-home dad, attends the play group with his 2-year-old daughter, Ahn. He and his wife received a hospital referral to Great Start when their special-needs son, Bo, now 5, was born. Bo had a rare illness that required him to be fed intravenously, and he was at risk of motor delays and other developmental delays.

Working with Great Start "gave us a good idea of a framework of activities that would be helpful to our son," says Velarde-Chan. A staffer, for example, brought a little platform that helped his son learn to step up and down stairs and a tent that his son could crawl in and out of. "It was a very simple thing that helped him with his gross motor skills that I would never have cooked up on my own."

Bo, who has "no brain problems or heart problems" but still is fed intravenously, recently started kindergarten, "which is a huge thing for us," says his father.

Velarde-Chan says it’s been a struggle to find other dads who stay at home with their kids, but he gets along well with some of the play-group mothers and was recently asked by one of them to bring her child to the group when she couldn’t attend. "That was super-cool that she trusted me to do that," he says.

Lisa Evans, 49, hasn’t made any friends with whom she socializes outside the play group -- "I kind of have my own social issues," she says -- but she likes the socialization her 2-year-old foster son, Cory, gets there. "I’m a stay-at-home mom, and we don’t do day care," says Evans.

Evans and her husband have four other children and are planning to adopt Cory. She tears up and can’t talk for a moment when asked why she decided to become a foster mom. Then she says, "There’s just so many kids out there. We’ve been blessed with our own, but both my husband and I wanted to help other families."

She’s grateful for the speech therapy Cory gets through Great Start. "We always had early and increasing talkers. This has definitely been a learning experience for us. I thought speech just always came naturally. It’s been a huge help to Cory to break down speech into syllables. And he’s doing better socializing too."

The evidence comes just a few minutes later. As Evans is talking, her usually shy son runs over to one of the play-group staffers to get a stamp on his hand. He runs back with a giant smile on his face.

Margaret DeRitter is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of newspaper and magazine experience. She lives in Kalamazoo.

Photos by Erik Holladay.
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