Summer help for kids in need

Children First teacher Brenda Haag observes gold fish with 2-year-old Isaac Zapata at Helen Payne Center in Sarasota on Thursday. [Herald-Tribune staff photo/DAN WAGNER].

Children First teacher Brenda Haag observes gold fish with 2-year-old Isaac Zapata at Helen Payne Center in Sarasota on Thursday. [Herald-Tribune staff photo/DAN WAGNER].

Children First offers summer child care that prepares kids for school

For some, summer means beach days and relaxing nights, but for many families, like Alejandra Vergara’s, summer triggers stress.

Last year, Vergara’s three children — ages 9, 6 and 2 — stayed with another mom for $20 a day, a great deal compared to standard child care pricing, but one that came with hidden costs.

“They’d be tired and anxious when I picked them up,” said Vergara. “The woman watching them wouldn’t take them out and they’d watch TV all day.”

Vergara works full time managing her new cleaning business and her husband works at a pawn shop. With three children, two incomes are indispensable.

And so is Children First, Vergara says, where this summer her 2-year-old son, Isaac Zapata, is learning the building blocks that will help prepare him for kindergarten.

Access to affordable, quality child care has lasting effects on academic outcomes, and Head Start and Early Head Start programs are providing it for 50 percent more young children this summer at Children First, a local nonprofit that offers holistic programs for families in need.

The majority of the families Children First serve earn an average annual family income of $18,000 to $20,000 a year. The cost of Children First’s child care would be $250 a week, but thanks to state and federal funding, as well as private donations, 98 percent of participating families qualify for free services. The organization serves about 600 children during the school year and, with the recent expansion, 270 during the summer.

Children First is also one of the few affordable early learning centers that serves children from six weeks through pre-kindergarten.

“We consistently have about 200 families on the waiting list,” Children First CEO Philip Tavill said. Without it, many families revert to leaving smaller children with older siblings or family members not necessarily equipped to keep them engaged and learning, he said.

A Sarasota County school district task force on school readiness has shown that more children are beginning school without basic skills such as recognizing letters and numbers. which can put them behind during kindergarten.

“It may not seem like we do a lot at this age, but they’re learning letters and how they sound, we’re reading stories to them, practicing three-letter word recognition and learning how to hold a pencil,” said Brenda Haag, and educator at Children First for the past 20 years. “These activities prepare them to start learning reading and writing.”

Socially and emotionally, it’s marked too. Kids unlearn sharing, Haag said, and the educators have to reintroduce them to concepts like self-control and respect for boundaries.

"Summer slide is easy to measure with testing, but the social and emotional component is harder to measure and we want to help develop that. If you don’t play well with others in kindergarten, it will affect outcomes," Tavill said.

CHILDREN FIRST

Children First has 13 sites across Sarasota County and offers free classes and support for children, parents and caregivers.

For volunteer or donor opportunities, please contact Children First at 941-953-3877.