It’s a Big Year for Our House’s Child Care

It’s a Big Year for Our House’s Child Care

Homeless shelter’s new center opens in June, doubling Little Learners capacity

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. See full article here.

By Chelsea Boozer
Photo by Staton Breidenthal
This article was published January 2, 2014 at 4:48 a.m.

“We want to send a message to parents of homeless children that you are worth investing in. You are worth a $5 million building. We believe you are going to do incredible things in your life.”

One-year-old Elijah spent a week watching his dad, Rickey Banks, drop off his two older brothers at the Our House homeless shelter’s Child Development Center in Little Rock, wondering why he couldn’t go, too.

The center, separated into small areas enclosed by blue, bricked walls, has room for only 23 children in its Little Learners program, for ages 6 weeks to 5 years. It can tend to a maximum of six children in the toddler room, and that class was full when Banks and his three boys went to live at Our House about two weeks ago.

So while 4-year-old Raheem and 3-year-old Ahmad went to the Child Development Center each morning, Banks had to take Elijah along with him on job hunts. He got an interview last week with Fiber Glass Systems LP, but personnel there wouldn’t allow him in with his son, so he missed the opportunity.

Over the weekend, a spot opened up in the Little Learners’ toddler class, and Elijah was admitted. On Monday, Banks was able to go job hunting again and was offered another interview at Fiber Glass Systems. Just after 4 p.m. Monday he picked up his sons – all matching in black and blue – and headed over to the shelter where they would eat.

“It was hard, believe me … with that 1-year-old. It was cold outside. I didn’t have any transportation. I had to get him on and off the bus. It was frustrating,” Banks said.

Come June, Our House Executive Director Georgia Mjartan hopes to never have to tell another story like Elijah’s where there isn’t room for a child in their programs. On June 7, the shelter’s new $4.4 million education center will open, and there will be room for 52 kids in the Little Learners program. In all, about 150 children will be able to benefit from the center on any given day.

“The toddler room has been the busiest room for over a year and is the main room we have had to turn away children from,” Mjartan said. “In our new center, we will have two toddler rooms – one for new walkers and one for the slightly older toddlers.”

The center has been in the works since 2010, and more than 463 private donors contributed $4.1 million in cash and an untracked amount of in-kind services to build, furnish and open the center. Instead of the open setting where children from ages 6 weeks to 5 years play now, there will be five rooms for that age group. There will also be a health and wellness room, a commercial kitchen, large storage space, a shower, a two-story youth center and a proper playground.

Currently, an old garage has been transformed into a creativity room. The space is cramped and mostly full of stacked plastic storage bins. In the new center, kids will have space and can look forward to going each day to a place just for them that is clean and state-of-the art, Mjartan said.

“We want to send a message to parents of homeless children that you are worth investing in,” Mjartan said. “You are worth a $5 million building. We believe you are going to do incredible things in your life. We say that with a big, beautiful, new building with the playgrounds they dreamed of. We don’t say that with used hand-me-down furniture and equipment and classrooms that are too small.”

The Our House staff takes pride in educating children, not just baby-sitting them while their parents are at work or looking for a job, according to Mjartan. Kids participate in enrichment programs, and different organizations come in often with exhibits and lessons for the children. They have study time and time outside to use the bike trail, basketball court or playground.

The time spent with the children, catering to their needs and wants, is more than just a good deed, Mjartan said, adding that it could alter their future paths.

“I saw that we had a captive audience of children who were the most vulnerable members of our community – the most at risk and the most in need and also the most able to get out of homelessness. I felt like if we invested six months, a year, five years – whatever we could – into these kids at such a young age, we could do more there to end homelessness in Little Rock, in Arkansas, in our community than anything we could do with their parents,” Mjartan said.

“So instead of saying, ‘Let’s serve the adults, and oh, yeah, by the way care for children,’ let us establish innovative programs that invest in children.… Let’s just pour into these kids educationally, emotionally with programs that are fun and engaging, and let’s make sure these kids do well in school, are prepared for kindergarten and get the support they need after school that sometimes their parents that have a fourth-grade education don’t know how to or don’t have time to do.

“By doing that, that’s not only a good thing to do that makes us feel good, but it’s something that we believe will end a family’s cycle of homelessness permanently,” she said.

In the new education center, teenagers also will have their own space, and there will be a technology room with computers. A cafeteria will turn into a performance hall for dance and Zumba classes.

On June 7 – the Saturday after school lets out for the summer – a big opening is planned with activities and food for the children, their parents, donors and their kids, and the public.

Our House’s child-care programs are unique in that they don’t cater just to homeless children but also to formerly homeless, the near homeless and community kids.

“What I love most is that if you walk into a classroom, you don’t know who is homeless and who is community. They’re just kids,” said child-care coordinator Mollie Ispen.

Laura Watlington is one of those community parents who has never been homeless. She has a master’s degree in social work and pays to send her son, 1-year-old Tyler, to Our House’s Child Development Center. She said the center offers Tyler a chance to be exposed to diverse people that he may not get at other child-care facilities, plus the program is top-notch, Watlington said.

And the opportunity of having “stable” children like Tyler – who were fed properly the night before, got enough rest and care at home – in classes with homeless children who may be living a hectic lifestyle is beneficial to the homeless children, Mjartan said.

“That’s a wonderful gift to kids who are in unstable situations,” she said, explaining that there’s less chaos when you have a mix of children from different backgrounds.

As of this week, there are 18 children on a waiting list to get into Our House’s Little Learners program. By mid-June, Ispen hopes, waiting lists will be a thing of the past. Then every homeless child at the shelter will be able to benefit from the program, just like Banks’ boys, she said.

“It’s really good,” Banks said. “Before my little boy went there, [Raheem] the 4-year-old, he didn’t know his ABCs. Now I hear him singing it. He’s really improving. And Ahmad, he kind of had a little speech problem. Since he’s been there, his speech has been improving. Our House is a very nice place. It’s clean, and they got a lot of respect for people. There’s people who are willing to help there.”

Arkansas, Pages 7 on 01/02/2014

Print Headline: It’s big year for Our House’s child care

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