Children who live in traumatic situations need more than day care. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Eugene, Oregon USA has full day program that early childhood educators say is unique.

First Place Kids Center adopts new approachFirst Place Kids Center rethinks its approach topreparing children to succeed

Published: March 16, 2008 12:00AM

To the untrained eye, a new paint job may not be such a big deal.

At First Place Kids Center, a mellow sage green has replaced frenetic yellow walls that directors say “overstimulated kids that are already overstimulated.” Along with the new shade has come a new philosophy on how to best help the youngest victims of homelessness.

In the past six months, the St. Vincent de Paul center has moved from a day care to a full-day “therapeutic” preschool aimed at preparing kids for kindergarten.

“These aren’t just kids that come to normal day care — these are kids who come from very stressful situations,” First Place Family Center director William Wise said. Every child the center serves, he added, is homeless, has been homeless in the past or is facing becoming homeless in the future.

And with that stress comes an increased use of violence to solve problems, more tantrums and more trouble, he said.

For homeless children, the Kids Center has become a home base.

“These kids, because of their trauma, they live in a constant state of fight or flight,” Kids Center director Jake Spavins said. “What we try and do is slow them down.”

Fourteen children ages 2½ to 5 spend Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. receiving ample one-on-one attention from three teachers and scores of volunteers.

They get two full meals and a snack — often the only guaranteed meals of the day. They get 2½ hours of rest in the afternoon — often the only guaranteed solid sleep of the day.

Spavins, who worked at the center while earning his master’s degree in early intervention at the University of Oregon, was hired as director last summer and immediately set to work revamping the space, which closed for two months during a remodel.

He put in a nook where children could “mellow out” and process their feelings quietly. And a sleep area with mats was added.

Teachers offer behavioral choices, rather than barking orders. The children practice waiting using an egg timer.

They pet Carrots, the class’ amiable black-and-white bunny. They do puzzles and explore their senses making shaving cream designs, playing in the water and going shoeless in the sandbox.

The approach is entirely unique, local educators say.

“If this is not one-of-a-kind in the nation, I’m sure it’s one of a handful-of-a-kind,” said Jane Farrell, an early childhood special educator at the University of Oregon’s EC Cares program who worked closely with Spavins to develop the center’s new direction.

Though other services such as the Relief Nursery and Head Start have similar philosophies, none is full-day, she said.

The results, Spavins said, have been remarkable.

Some children have doubled their scores on developmental tests and now rank among peers from traditional backgrounds. Playtime, formerly a cacophony of fighting and yelling, has become a peaceful affair, Spavins said.

On a recent sunny day, children who awoke early from “body rest” played quietly while others snored. On the playground, they took turns sharing swings and tricycles.

“It’s kind of amazing to watch it transpire on a daily basis,” he said as a small girl in a pink jacket hopped by on her hands and knees, declaring that she was a cat. “There’s been a dramatic decrease in a lot of negative behavior. They use words rather than hit to get what they want.”

The Kids Center’s annual budget of about $117,000 comes from a variety of sources, including Head Start, the United Way, Department of Human Services vouchers, St. Vincent de Paul and individual donors. Most families qualify for Head Start or DHS assistance, and attend the school for free, although a few pay $250 a month, Wise said.

Many families are also under the nonprofit’s larger umbrella of homeless services such as its night shelter. Many children receive dental and other health screenings. Family advocates visit with families both in the classroom and during home visits.

“These kids have access to unprecedented services,” Spavins said. “Families feel comfortable in the center. We have one mom who does laundry during the day while her child is here.”

The change to a preschool format did not come without a few sacrifices.

As a day care, First Place served 24 children, including infants, Wise said. But, without steady funding coming in, the program was hemorrhaging about $24,000 a year, he said.

“Our choice was to do much more for a smaller amount of kids or close,” he said. “We’re continuously looking for ways to improve, so instead we’ve moved to a much higher level of function … we’re benefiting childrens’ mental health.”

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