Seventy percent of the children who go home from YWCA’s five-star pre-school, housed at its headquarters on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland, will sleep in a shelter at night. But during the school day, those fifty 3-to-5-year-old children are in a learning environment that is enriched with degreed educators supporting them in an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Model, born out of Georgetown University. It goes back to the greatest need: addressing trauma, stress, fear, anxiety and the all-consuming mental side effects of living a life of uncertainty in homelessness.
“We have a model that builds social capital within our parents – we are teaching them how to fish and how to thrive and build community,” says YWCA Greater Cleveland President & CEO Margaret Mitchell.
The support goes far beyond the class room. “For the child, it’s about helping them meet social and emotional mile-stones, but what makes our learning environment different is our two-generational model,” says Teresa Sanders, YWCA’s Chief Program Officer. “If the parents aren’t OK, the children aren’t going to be OK, so we provide equal amount of services to the entire family.”
The preschool includes a staff family engagement specialist who assesses issues driving homelessness and other adversities. “Then, we build a plan to move the family from a state of crisis to stabilization,” Sanders says.
An early childhood mental health consultant builds capacity in parents and helps transfer classroom strategies to home. “We are strengthening families to build resistance, so they can be their own best advocates,” Sanders says.
It’s about building connections – creating a network for individuals who have tapped out their own safety nets, or whose networks are impoverished. “People who are homeless, yes, literally don’t have a home – and they also have come to the end of the rope with their networks,” Mitchell says.
“Imagine you most difficult parenting moment at 7 P.M,” she says. “It’s after a long week, you’re hungry, tired, you’ve got bills to pay. Now, imagine parenting your children in a shelter where they are disoriented and scared and traumatized.”
The environmental imprint this life makes on the young brain impacts development, learning, and ultimately, potential success in school. These are the root “causes” the YWCA preschool addresses head-on with its curriculum and supports, including the program Nurturing Independence and Aspirations. “Resiliency is the game-changer, and everything we do is about building resiliency,” Mitchell says.
“It’s very important to us to offer children and families that often have the least the very best,” Mitchell emphasizes.
Of the families served during the four years the preschool has operated with the model, only 6 percent have returned to homelessness. “That is a wow,” Mitchell says.