If you asked most Lopezians what they consider to be top essential services that keep the island running day-to-day, responses would probably include: OPALCO, The Washington State Ferries, the grocery stores. Ok, maybe Holly B’s and Isabelle’s Espresso. Most probably wouldn’t put the Lopez Children’s Center at the top of their list. But they should. I spent a recent afternoon learning why from Children’s Center Director, Jane Hobbs, and Nancy Ewert, Parent Educator for the Lopez Cooperative Preschool.
Almost every child under the age of 5 on Lopez – 95% of them – spent time at the Children’s Center last year – either in the preschool or in the PAL (Play & Learn) program. These are the kids of the people who check us out at the grocery store, help us in the medical clinic, serve us food in the restaurants and fix our electrical and plumbing problems. Without the Children’s Center, the people who run this island don’t have many choices for childcare and early education for their kids. And, without it, explained Jane, “this would be an island of retired people.”
Some people think that the Children’s Center is part of the Family Resource Center. Though they are located in the same building in Lopez Village, they are separate organizations. In fact, the FRC is a tenant of the Children’s Center. The preschool is actually also a financially autonomous organization from The Children’s Center. But they all provide critical services to Lopez families. To do so, they need to collaborate closely; so it’s a good thing they’re all in the same place.
The preschool turns 50-years-old this September. Since opening its doors in 1965 where the Community Church is now located, the preschool has had several homes around the island – including a 20-year stint in a small building on the public school grounds, even though it’s not affiliated with Lopez Island School District. A growing youth population, combined with fewer options for licensed childcare on the island, led to the construction of a larger building in 2003, current home to the Lopez Children’s Center, the preschool, PAL and FRC.
As a cooperative, the preschool is run by parents, who do everything from helping teach and feed the kids to raising money for the school. Because it is affiliated with Skagit Valley College, the preschool benefits from the assistance of a Parent Educator, Nancy Ewert. Nancy calls the preschool, “a great leveler” because every child gets the same high quality education, regardless of financial situation or family circumstance. The parents learn just as much, if not more than the kids: How to work in a classroom, how to work with a diverse group of parents, and how to serve on a board.
People would be surprised by the amount of work that goes into teaching five-year-olds. “This isn’t babysitting,” continued Jane. Teachers are required to take 10 hours of continuing education per year. Every minute of the day is planned. The emphasis is on social and emotional development: tolerance of others’ views, conflict resolution and the confidence to express one’s opinion.
Both Nancy and Jane took great pains to point out the unsung heroes who are preparing these little Lopezians for the world – the PAL and preschool employees: Martha Garcia, Cheryl Bailey, Catalina Kohring, Jennifer Butler, Bobby Holt, Libby Valluzzi and Leslie MacDonald, who has taught at the preschool for more than 20 years. “You have to show up with your game face on,” said Jane, describing the tough job these people do – for very low pay, no benefits to speak of and little vacation time.
It’s amazing what the Children’s Center is able to accomplish given how strapped they are for funds. Tuition only covers part of the Center’s costs. The rest comes from grants from organizations like United Way and the Lopez Thrift Store and fundraisers, the most popular of which is probably the Preschool Holiday Bazaar. According to Jane, the Center is “always on the edge [and] without the support of the community, the doors would close.”
Regardless of whether you have children at the Children’s Center, contributing to the organization is good investment in the community. Most economists agree with Nancy that preschool is not only a great leveler, it represents an investment with one of the highest rates of return.
From James J. Heckman, Ph.D. Heckman: The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children
If you want to make sure this essential service for the Lopez community stays in operation, there are a number of ways to invest: attending or volunteering for one of the Children’s Center’s fundraising events, volunteering in the classroom, donating to United Way of San Juan County (specifying Lopez Children’s Center as recipient), rounding up your bill when you shop at Blossom Grocery (specifying the Children’s Center), or shoping online through www.goodshop.com.
Don’t know where the Children’s Center is located? You can find it in the Mixby app.