Thank you for dedicating this Sunday to PEP. I’d like to introduce myself again, my name is Donna Guna, and I’m the new director of PEP. I’ve been in early childhood education for 15 years and during my time I’ve held a lot of titles in addition to director such as mentor, counselor, teacher, trainer, administrator, and developer just to name a few. I’m not telling you this so that you can feel confident in my ability to lead this program, I’m telling you this so you can understand the full gravity of the statement I’m about to make. I’ve only been in this position since June of this year, but I can say this is the by far the best program and the most fulfilling role I have ever been in.
The vision of this program, the way it is implemented, and the people involved in supporting it are all amazing and I’m so honored to be a part of it. I have a quote displayed in my office, and I believe I may have given it to you before in one of my newsletters, but it was said by Gandhi and it’s, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I feel that the work we are doing with the children and the families here at Prospect is our way of being that change and moving us to a world where people are valued, loved, and cared about, unconditionally and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.
I’m sure everyone here knows the preschool and knows that our mission is to provide quality early childhood education to all children, regardless of race, gender, religion, citizenship, or socioeconomic status. We will never turn a child away, even if the family cannot cover the cost of tuition. Our scholarship fund is available to any family that needs it and for many of our children, it is the only way they are able to attend a preschool program. But I’d like to dive a little deeper, past the surface, to share with you the full depth of what PEP offers these children.
First and foremost, we offer them safety and security. That seems like such a simple, basic thing, but for some of our children that come to us home is not the haven it should be. The children that attend our program know that as soon as they walk through the door they will be surrounded by adults they know care about them and will protect them. They know they’ll have friends to interact with and toys to play with in a classroom that’s clean and warm and inviting. They know their needs will be addressed and taken care of. They know they’ll have a hot meal that’s good for them and there will always be enough food for them to eat and as much as they want. They learn to trust us because when those big emotions that they’re feeling come out they know someone will be there to help them through it, by helping them learn what those emotions are and how to cope with them. They just feel loved when they are at PEP. Even if all we do for these children is give them a place to be nurtured, that would be enough to make a change in their life, but we offer them more.
At PEP we embrace the whole child approach - in early childhood education that means cognitive development and academic intelligence are just as important as social development and emotional intelligence. At Prospect, we take the whole child approach even further. For us, it means supporting the child in every aspect, beyond their education. We ensure that their physical and mental health is developing appropriately, that that family system has the resources it needs to support the child, and that we are active advocates for these children.
I won’t go too in depth with all the details and intricacies of the program, but I do want to quickly share how we do all those things for the children. Every year we perform health screenings for children. We test vision, hearing, and track growth. And every year, almost without fail, we identify a child that needs a referral to either an optometrist, dentist, or occupational therapist.
We also perform cognitive and emotional assessments on the children to see if there are any concerns in those departments, so we know any areas we need to focus on developing or if we need to seek additional help. Already, this year, we’ve referred a student to ChildFind to get him additional support outside our program, from the Seattle public school system, to make sure he has all the necessary skills he needs to be successful when he starts Kindergarten next year.
And the wonderful things about all these assessments, referrals, and additional resources these children may need is that they don’t become another stress for the family to deal with because we offer them a Family Support Specialist. We have a person whose sole responsibility is to support the family. She’s there to find any service or program that the family may need. And if there isn’t a service or program to help them then she takes the lead on finding a solution that will help that child. And if there’s a situation that can’t be resolved through systems already in place, then we step up to advocate being the change that needs to happen to help them in the future.
I’ll say it again, this preschool is truly one of the most amazing and dynamic programs I’ve ever seen. I absolutely love that we are able to provide all these opportunities to children and families that could benefit from it the most. We are able to support children that are experiencing housing insecurity, two of our families this year alone are in emergency shelters trying to get back on their feet. We are able to support children that are experiencing the complexity of kinship care situations. We started this year with three students that were suddenly moved into the homes of grandparents because the child’s home life was no longer a safe or stable environment. We are able to support children that are at an economic disadvantage. Almost half of our families have two working adults contributing to the household expenses, but they still do not earn enough to move them above the low-income threshold. In fact, several of our children live below the poverty line.
Almost every child enrolled in our program has at least one ACE, an adverse childhood experience, they are currently going through. That could be homelessness, transitional living, poverty, single parent household, witnessing domestic violence, having an incarcerated parent, or having a parent suffering with mental illness. Some of our children are going through multiple of these experiences simultaneously. Research has shown that the more traumatic events, like the ones I just mentioned, that a child has in their life the higher the risk of chronic disease, social problems, and emotional difficulties. But that same research also shows that if children have positive experiences, like the ones we offer them here at PEP, those can be the change in their life they need to build resiliency, which can offset some of the negative effects.
So now that I’ve covered what we do and who we do this for, I want to say thank you to Prospect Congregational Church. Without you this would not be possible on so many levels. You provide those safe and protected spaces for them; we simply fill them. So, thank you. And without your contributions over the years we wouldn’t have the means to operate at the level we do, to touch as many families as we have. So, again, thank you. Your support and dedication to seeing this program and its mission continue has sometimes been the only thing to keep PEP continuing on its journey. I cannot express the level of gratitude I have for all of you and what you have done, and continue to do, for us. I’m so thankful that there are people like you, being the change we need in this world.
So, I’ve spoken about being the change, because without change we can’t move forward, and we can’t improve. Frankly, I’d love to see some more changes, in the world right here between us. The change I would like to see is a more connected relationship between us. I don’t know the full history of the preschool and the Church, but I do know we used to be closer. Looking through old records I found the outline of the program when it was originally designed, by Jane Michael herself. It was a two-hour program, during that time the children spent 30 minutes with a teacher, 30 minutes with the director, and 30 minutes with a volunteer from the community. Jane recognized and understood how important community presence and support is for children. Even though PEP is now its own organization, separate from the Church, it doesn’t mean we should be separated from the church community.
So this is the change I want to be for these children, here and now. I want to rebuild that connection between us. I know that every month our newsletter speaks of “strengthening the partnership”, but I want to do more than speak on it, I want to do it! I want to surround our children with as many people as possible so that they know there is always someone there that cares about them and can help them. And I want them to learn that community means helping one another. Relationships/partnerships, whatever you want to call them, they aren’t one-way streets. We need to find ways to reach out and support those that have reached out to support us and I’d like to be the change that helps us move back to that stronger bond we used to have.
One thing I’ve started is the Prospect Connection board down in the fellowship hall. We can talk about that more during coffee hour, while you enjoy the pumpkin bread the children baked for you.
Another thing I will start doing is being more involved in the church’s needs and missions. So you’ll see me, and hopefully some of our families, during future events like Fall clean up in November and I may pop in for a board meeting now and again, if that’s alright.
I found a lovely quote by Margaret Wheatly that beautifully ties in a few things I’ve talked about. It says, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” And we are a community and we care about these children. So this year when I ask you to continue being the change these children need, I’d like to ask you for something that doesn’t necessarily involve a check, but rather, community. This year I’d like to see if anyone would like to contribute their time, their talent, or their resources.
Time has unspeakable value. To a child, giving them attention and some of your time could be one of the most influential gifts they’re given. Coming into the classroom to read a story or stopping by for a while to do an activity with them shows them another person in their life giving them the positive experiences they need.
If you have a talent, come in and share that with them. If you’re a baker, come cook with them. If you love gardening and plants, lead them on a nature walk through the neighborhood. Musicians, let them see you perform. Artists, come show them your style and technique. Experiences can open up a whole new world of possibilities for these children. Share your talent or passion with them, it could be the way their find their own.
If being in the classroom isn’t for you, because it’s not for everyone, and I understand that, you can still give to the program in ways that benefit them. The program has its administrative side, as well. It’s led by committees and a board; you may consider volunteering for one of those.
Or maybe you have resources you’d like to give. That could come in the way of tangible things, such as item donations or financial contributions or as something practical, like contributing your skills on a project or even offering your knowledge and expertise to help us progress.
The possibilities are endless, you may have something to contribute that I haven’t considered and I’d love to discuss it. If there is something that struck your interest and you’d like to share it with us please write your name and contact information on the post it notes provided then take that post it note and place it on the poster board in the area you’d like help in. If you have something else in mind feel free to write it down and put it in the other space, please don’t limit yourself to my ideas that are listed. And this isn’t an obligation, it’s just an invitation from me to start the conversation.
Being the change this world needs can start with the smallest and simplest of things. It just takes a few people, working together. And again, I can’t say it enough, you have my sincerest gratitude for all the support you’ve given us so that together we can a make a change in the lives of these children. Thank you.