On the first floor of the Perry School Community Services Center on M Street in Northwest Washington, there is a kindergarten brightness to the pictures on the walls . There are words on the walls, too, including the slogan: “A problem is a chance to do your best.”
The floor is the home of Bright Beginnings, a child and family development center for young homeless children and their families. A goal of the Center is to help homeless children and families find opportunities in the midst of their problems; to live their best lives.
Bright Beginnings, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, offers education, family, therapeutic, health and wellness services and, most recently, evening care services. It is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and serves children six months to five years old, averaging 75 students daily. The center, accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, provides care for the children before they go home to transitional houses and shelters.
“Bright Beginnings believes that every child deserves a bright start, and they’ll get it here,” said Executive Director Dr. Betty Jo Gaines.
“They will get a warm, nurturing environment. Their nutritional needs, health needs and educational needs will be taken care of.”
The transience and stress of homelessness can make it challenging for children to focus on learning. But at Bright Beginnings, programs aim to prepare children so that when they enter kindergarten they are ready to learn at the same level as other children. The center employs a curriculum that is tailored to children’s interests and based on the idea that people learn best through hands-on experience. There are seven classrooms, separated by age group. It is “proven to be effective to children living unsettling lives,” said Gaines.
On a typical day, Gaines said, the children arrive; have a family-style breakfast; participate in a community gathering, which includes singing and talking about their feelings, and then begin their education. “We hope to develop self-confidence and good decision-making while preparing academic skills to prepare them for kindergarten,” Gaines said.
Every child receives a therapeutic and health screening upon enrollment in the program so that needs can be addressed and a plan can be devised for each child. Therapeutic services are provided by social workers, psychologists and occupational therapists who identify developmental delays and disabilities.
According to Gaines, one-third of the children have special needs and are treated with speech, emotional, occupational or physical therapy. But children are not separated by their needs.
“We believe in inclusion,” Gaines said. “Our belief is, we want to bring as many resources as we can to ensure the success of these families. If a child doesn’t have a dental or medical home, we will find them one.”
She has had the satisfaction of seeing many children blossom over time as their families are stabilized and their physical and emotional needs are met.
“I’ve seen children be very passive and shy,” Gaines said. “When they begin to feel more comfortable, they’ll call out your name. I’ve seen children grow and develop from infants to the third classroom.”
The children aren’t the only ones growing. “I’ve seen parents grow,” Gaines said. “I’ve seen parents who are angry at the world. I’ve seen them come in and offer respect. We pass no judgment. When you give respect you gain respect.”
Bright Beginnings offers services to families, including parenting classes, a family support group and referrals. The Parent Aide program offers parents the opportunity to pursue careers in early childhood development. Parents can work at Bright Beginnings part time and receive on-the-job training.
“We have very high parent participation, and I believe that’s because the parents trust us,” Gaines said. “When we have activity, they want to be involved. Parents are often comfortable enough to keep coming for advice even after their kids are no longer here.”
For parents who work or have other obligations in the evening, Bright Beginnings provides an Early Learning Evening Care program that remains open until 11 p.m.
Bright Beginnings is in the process of raising funds to open a new center in Southeast Washington for infants and toddlers.
“I want to emphasize two things,” Gaines said. “First, every child needs a bright start in life. We’re here to ensure that. Second, I believe that every parent loves their child and wants the best for them, regardless of the circumstances they are in.”