As I am getting more into the pace of New York and it’s districts I was really looking forward to meeting the staff at Kingsbridge Heights Community Centre. It is primarily a Community Centre, but also a leading Early Head Start and Head Start Centre. I’d like to say that my time keeping has improved but alas my early morning 7.30 start was not quite early enough to get to this amazing place and northern point of the Bronx. This Community Centre is situated near the Riverdale area with a more chilled out pace. As a University town it attracts students from all over the City. I think tourists avoid these areas but they really are hidden gems; the change in the urban landscape, the taste in food is an example of the assimilation that is New York City. Even the way the A line travels over the bridge from the Bronx over the East River to Harlem with the hazy late summer sun, makes these islands unique from each other, almost like passing into different mini countries.
The email correspondence leading up to the visit had been warm and friendly, but I didn’t expect the reception or the service I would receive from this place.
I meet Lori Spector Deputy Director who had arranged the visit, she glided down the stairs thrilled to meet me and had I seen my name outside!? I had my name beautifully scrolled in felt tip on orange sugar paper on the railings outside the centre so the whole of Kingsbridge Terrace knew they were expecting; Lucy! My name was also on the screen in the reception of the community centre. Then when I went into the other offices for the Early Childcare Services department I had my name again printed out over A3 paper in colour Ms Lucy Potter – I felt like a bit of a celebrity. I was handed my itinerary for the day, which was halted by the first routine fire drill of the term, where we all had to gather outside at the designated point. Lori left me in the hands of Yenny Toone Assistant Executive Director, as we went back inside Lori called across the street to Yenny saying ‘She needs coffee, get her some coffee!’
The community centre was once the old 50th Precinct police department – part of the settlement program in 1978 where three police wives and passionate community organisers Mary McLoughlin, Patricia Burns and Janet Athanasidy maintained the building for it’s serving purpose today. It’s warmth and friendly atmosphere eliminates any institutional feel with a ramp and a lift for accessibility. The centre operates from three buildings including the precinct which cover a variety of services, Early Head Start and Head Start programs, Youth Services, Summer Day Camp, Teen centre (open daily from 5 – 9pm) Special Needs flagship program with extra weekend respite, Adult and Family Services ESOL, Parent and Child Counselling, Child Sexual Abuse Treatment and Prevention Program (This is a title you wouldn’t really see promoted in the UK but seems to be common here) Adult and Senior Services Program. The service depends on major funding from 42 different foundations. The Community Centre holds 140 staff and 52 of them are working with the Early Head Start and Head Start programs supporting 135 families.
Early Head Start program promotes supporting the families with children from birth to 3 years including pregnant women.The goals are to improve child development outcomes and social emotional functioning through positive parenting and child attachment. The picture below are the sessions parent undertake on a weekly basis supporting their children to learn basic hand eye coordination skills though sharing creative activities together. This is the 3 months to 3 years combination of Parent/Child and Home/baby school. About 10 families come to each session that’s 20 a day five days a week.
If you require child care the centre does not have a center based provision but does offer Family Child ‘Community Providers’. It took a while for the penny to drop they must have thought I’d come from Mars, then I suddenly realised they are Child Minders. They loved that terminology.
The centre provides working or studying parents a list of childminders and equally support the childminders by providing them with families and combining the cost to financially support them making applications through voucher and employee schemes less stressful. The ‘Room to Grow’ area, an extension off the child centre offices is a free soft play area as usually the home environment is too small and restrictive for a toddler. It gives the children chance to play with each other and childminders a place to meet and socialise too. With this being an Early Head Program the relationship between provider and service is overseen by the EHP continuing their holistic support, as all professionals are on site they can monitor the child’s development.
I then visited the 4 year olds on the Head Start Program – a comprehensive child development and school readiness program (Our Early Years Foundation Stage)
For three year olds a half day center based classroom and a home based program option.
For four year olds, a half day and three full-day center based classrooms.
The children were attentive and responsive listening to Mildred (early years teacher) read them stories and do the hokey pokey (not kokey) and then sing in Spanish too. I had dinner with the children and a place was set out for me. I engaged in some great conversation about kiwi fruits and what children like to eat. They didn’t seem phased by my accent but one girl did look intently at me for a moment and then laughed saying I had colourful eyes, and quickly checking around I confirmed that yes, i was probably the only person in the room with blue eyes. It was a lovely genuine moment of a child observing our differences in the purest sense.
All of the family support workers and teachers are bilingual. Each leaflet is translated in Spanish. As most of the children centres the community has a large hispanic immigrant population from Latin America, Central America and the Dominican Republic.
I could have talked to so many people for much longer, and was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm for their service. Melissa Yurdin Child Development Supervisor clarified the differences of the early school programs. To help me understand clearer I wrote out the UK’s basic 0-3’s 3-5’s educare – then primary and secondary to try and compare them to here. In one sense the USA is familiar but then it’s not.. Like you try and fit the experience of what you know early years foundation stage into Early Head Start but it is impossible and not as simple as just using an plug adaptor to make a hair dryer work, there are fundamental differences which has an affect on the service. In one sense the principles are the same but the way work is miles apart in terms of engaging families.
I had a conversation with Irene Guiter Mazer Phd and Director of Family Services. It was Irene’s third day on the job but she has worked in many different organisations. She grilled me about how the our free health service and instead of being surprised like other responses I’d got, linked the reason I was researching to the fact that if we have free health care why shouldn’t we have a better system for supporting families. I argued the fact that we are a more centralised and therefore have a controlling statutory system which takes the responsibilities away from families thereby reducing the desire to seek help or take the help for granted. I also said that its perhaps because the health visitors go out to every single women that has a baby identifies needs which can’t be practically or physically met to provide long term support by community and family support workers. Yenny said that from 1978 the community center has responded to the mental and physical health needs in terms of keeping a local support network within the community thereby providing opportunities to help the families open up more to local intervention services. Irene said we have to be more ‘creative’ with the services we’ve got – I said yes, that’s the ‘Big Society’ vision David Cameron is talking about – easier said than done.
The turn over of staff is low and the senior members of staff including Gizelle Susca Executive Director and Lori have served 55 years respectively. Gizelle said do you feed the parents? Do you cook them hot food for free? Right, I’ve never done this, but can someone in children centres in the UK please try this… next time you want to get parents and carers to come to group or taster session write on the leaflet ‘hot food provided for free’ I really want to see if it works and get back to me so I can report over here. I am very interested to find out.
Gizelle agreed with me that to have the child you have to have the parent. But look at what that parent wants, everyone needs something different find out what that is and help engage.
As I am writing I don’t mean to underplay our family support workers, I understand that there are innovative practices, community entrepreneurship programs, and a great third sector industry that we can be proud of and get benefits from. However this is a independent piece of research taken from my own passion and experience and I am open to new ways of approaching family engagement from everyone everywhere! Also, everyone I speak to is impressed by the Speakeasy course we facilitate and I’ve yet to find a ‘Young Carers’ program like the one we run in the UK; could this be a possible exchange of work practices? I agree though, we have to get more creative.
It’s nearly 5 pm and I am reminded of their creative new project; Helping Hands program designed to support both the youth and special needs program. The ‘typically developed’ teenager is paired with a developmentally disabled/mentally retarded similar aged child. This aims to get the special needs children out of their familiar environments by learning mainstream behaviour skills by engaging in sports and gym ball games. This is an exchange between two programs, the youths of the typically developing age program gain self esteem and general respect for their peers and help them to engage in mainstream socialisation, a chance they probably would not get anywhere else in a supervised environment.
So I say one last goodbye to everyone, I feel like we should be hugging, so we do! I’ve learnt so much from this place, I have yet to digest everything and I couldn’t fit anymore in my brain. I give them a commemorative Winston Churchill Coin as a token of my appreciation, Gizelle gives me recently published KHCC ‘Saying from the Heart’ a carers testimony book of poems. Christine (marketing) grabs me for another photo shoot for their newsletter and Lori directs me out the proper way (different to the way I came) she says I’m on my way out teaching social work for the BA students – and again on Sunday the for the Masters student ‘I know at my age!’ I don’t know where they get their energy from!
As I leave I take a look at the wall outside of the building, it is getting painted white by some corporate volunteers – tomorrow graffiti artists from Sweden are going fill it all in, The Bronx Pride is a subway train and each window are faces of some of the famous people from the Bronx, Jennifer Lopez, Al Pacino, Colin Powell, John F Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor (have I missed anyone?) I’ve got a feeling I will be back to take a picture before I leave.
Thanks to everyone who gave up their time to show me round today, your energy and enthusiasm is a true testament to the work you do.