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By Sandy Brundage
Almanac Staff Writer
If you had to cut childcare for 45 families out of 300, how would you decide which families lose? That's a question child development centers across the county hope they never have to answer — but that depends on whether the state approves the governor's proposed 15 percent budget cut.
"Somewhere short of 4,000 children are in state-subsidized care in San Mateo County; 260,000 statewide," said Laurie Wishard, president of Peninsula Family Service. "What's 15 percent? We're getting close to 39,000 children (in the state)."
Eighteen of those children learn and play at the agency's Haven Child Development Center on Van Buren Avenue in Menlo Park. One hundred and thirteen families are on the waitlist.
"What we're looking at for our organization is closing two facilities the size of Haven," Ms. Wishard said. "Imagine these children and these parents aren't receiving care. Imagine a beautiful facility sitting vacant."
Part of Haven's goal is to do everything possible to keep parents off unemployment. That includes providing childcare for preschoolers and kindergarten readiness training while their parents search for housing and work, based on a belief that high-quality education for young children living below the poverty line will make a difference in their lifetimes.
"Those little kids are right in the middle of Menlo Park and right in the center of affluence," Ms. Wishard said. "The children and the families that use our services, they average two or three books in their houses. Contrast that with the number middle-class kids have, just of their own, plus how many books their parents have."
Kindergarten readiness for Haven's kids means discovering social and language skills through play. Rose Juarez, the center's director, said the program tries to create an individual approach to help each child cope with trauma, abuse, and homelessness.
"They're preoccupied with the war zone going on in their minds," she said, and described the program's philosophy as, "You have to know how to get along with others; you have to learn how to love to learn."
The play-based approach leads to some entertaining excursions. Ms. Juarez recounted a trip devoted to understanding the letter "B": The group recently took BART to the Bay, saw bikes, went to Baskin Robbins, and had bubblegum.
According to Haven's data, 87 percent of their kids are doing "extremely well" in kindergarten six to eight months after leaving the program.
One mother's story
The program is hoping that Karen Van Pelt will be another success story. The 36-year-old single mother of three relied upon the county's emergency shelter network after getting laid off, losing her apartment, and, later, losing her mother to cancer two years ago. What she found surprised her.
"I thought I was going to be walking into a warehouse of cots," she remembered. "But the shelter in San Mateo County looks like an apartment complex; people on the outside don't know it's a homeless shelter. They provide food, computers, doctors, nurses, people from different colleges who hold workshops."
At the time, she said, she was four months away from graduating as a medical office assistant, but had to drop out. Her three daughters are focused on their own educations, even Aaliyah, a 2-and-a-half-year-old who appears to thrive at Haven. "She's doing yoga, music. Just the way she speaks, I get compliments all the time on how smart she is. The teachers speak Spanish and English with her," Ms. Van Pelt said.
Even with Haven, it's a hard road back to self-sufficiency. Ms. Van Pelt lost another job earlier this month. "Oh god, I fill out 75 to 80 applications per week. Yesterday I did 16. I'm getting all these emails back, if you qualify, we'll be in touch," she said. "I'm applying for In-and-Out Burger, all these places; it's not me, you know, but I need to work. It's hard out there. I can't afford to be out of work with the three of them."
She tries not to dwell on what will happen if Haven closes.
Happy to be heard
In January, Peninsula Family Service took eight parents to Sacramento with agency president Laurie Wishard. They spoke with state legislators about the importance of early education and programs like the Haven Child Development Center.
"The Assembly members seemed very empathetic and concerned," Rose Juarez, Haven's director, said. "The parents were happy to be heard." The agency continues to urge the community to write and call their local representatives about the proposed state budget cuts.