As Riley Guimond, an excited 17-month-old, explored a classroom full of toys, his father, Andrew, patiently followed behind.
Squealing and exclaiming some of his first words, Riley soon discovered a basketful of musical instruments, and then a bench covered in plush animals.
“We let him lead at this age,” Guimond said, chasing the towheaded boy into the next room.
“He’s a beast,” he added with a grin.
Guimond, 36, is an active father who left a Seattle-area construction job that had often had him working six days a week, to create a more family-oriented lifestyle.
Now he builds snowboards four days a week at a factory in Carlsborg.
He works longer days, but has almost no commute and has three days a week to spend with his wife, Jennifer, and their son.
Since moving to Sequim in November, Guimond has spent lots of time in the two First Teacher classrooms at the Sequim Community School, learning how to be the best dad he can be.
“Parents always think they’re not doing enough or are doing something wrong. Especially first-time parents, like me,” Guimond said.
Guimond and his wife have been attending parenting classes and play groups at the Community School, 220 W. Alder St., since November.
In the classes, the Guimonds have picked up the tools to be the best parents they can be. These include a guide for what is “normal” for different ages, something that soothes their worries as their first child grows up.
At first, the couple was concerned that something wasn’t right when Riley played.
He couldn’t seem to sit still to read, and ran from one activity to another, Guimond said.
“He’s never been a big sitter,” he added.
But through First Teacher, they learned that Riley’s behavior was appropriate for his age.
Riley has matured and learned to sit through short-story times at the First Teacher classroom.
He now enjoys a chance to sit and read with his parents, Guimond said.
But the Sequim Community School, an elderly, energy-inefficient building, is soon to close. The Sequim School Board opted earlier this year to shutter it, and the closure will save the district about $90,000 a year.
So, as fruitful as time in the First Teacher room has been for families like the Guimonds, it comes to an end this summer.
First Teacher’s founder and executive director, Cynthia Martin, couldn’t say where or whether the playroom will find a new location.
“First Teacher does not have a home for next year. Since we are a free program, we can’t afford to pay rent,” Martin noted.
“First Teacher is a unique place: We need two rooms where we can leave out toys and books, and we need to be near a playground,” like the Children’s Playground beside the Community School.
“If someone could come forward and provide us with space near the Children’s Playground or a park, that would be wonderful.”
First Teacher was responsible for the Children’s Playground, Martin added. The place was paid for by grants and private donations, and installed with help from volunteers.
A child’s first teacher is not the person he or she meets when the child enters a classroom for preschool or kindergarten, said Paula Cunningham, a staffer for the First Teacher organization.
A child’s first teacher is his or her parent, Cunningham said.
The First Teacher program was created in 1990 in Sequim to give parents from pregnancy through their child’s fifth birthday the tools to become the best possible teachers for their children.
The program includes parenting classes, a classroom for parents to meet, and a newsletter that Cunningham said reaches 80 percent of parents in Clallam County’s school districts.
Today, First Teacher serves all of Clallam County with chapters in Forks and Port Angeles, and has expanded to include Jefferson, South Kitsap, Bremerton, Ocean Beach and North Thurston counties.
Rachel Anderson of Port Angeles, is a health-care professional and mother of Nathan, 5, and Isaac, 3.
With her focus on health, Anderson could have done her own research, and if the First Teacher newsletter didn’t exist, she probably would have, she said.
“It’s very valuable,” Anderson said.
Articles in the newsletter have included information on how to prevent drowning, using the alphabet song to know how long a child should wash his or her hands, and how to get a resistant child into a car seat.
But it was the Developmental Stages cards that made the biggest difference for Anderson’s family.
“It tells me about where my 5-year-old should be and about where my 3-year-old should be developmentally,” she said.
When Nathan was 12 months old, and then again at 18 months old, those cards told her that something wasn’t right.
“Those things got put on our list of things we need to talk to the doctor about at the next well-child visit,” she said.
Her pediatrician agreed that something was amiss. Nathan was diagnosed with a mild epileptic disorder.
The youngster is now on medications to control his seizures, and has suffered no lasting negative effects so far, Anderson said.
So now Nathan’s mom can concentrate on parenting. She intends to be the best first teacher for her children that she can be.
“It’s my job not only to wipe their noses, but to teach them how to wipe their noses themselves,” she said.
With the closure of Sequim Community School, the organization will lose its classroom space, said Martin.
The program has been financially supported by most of the county’s school districts, but statewide budget cuts have reduced the funding available to those districts. They cannot support the program as they once did, Martin said.
Schools also helped with funding for the First Teacher newsletter, which publishes several regional editions in Sequim, Port Angeles and Forks, plus a Spanish edition for Forks and other West End communities.
Martin said she appreciates the school districts’ assistance when there was enough funding to go around, but now the 22-year-old program needs help.
The organization will hold a fundraiser next weekend: the First Teacher Dungeness Kids’ Fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, July 14, at Carrie Blake Park, 202 N. Blake Ave. in Sequim.
The hope, Martin said, is that the event will raise enough money to at least continue providing the First Teacher newsletters.
Francesca Velasquez, 22, was born in Forks, and is the third generation of her family to live on the West End city. She describes herself as a survivor of domestic abuse.
She is raising her son, Daimian Velasquez, 4, alone after breaking free.
“You can rise above the abuse,” she said.
Velasquez began attending the bilingual First Teacher program in Forks with the support of her family, along with about 15 other parents.
“My grandmother told me I should give it a chance,” Velasquez said.
Among the families, there are many different life stories, she said.
Beyond parenting, Velasquez said, the class has helped her reconnect with her Latino heritage and with her family’s mother tongue.
Before the classes, she didn’t know how to reward or punish her son in a manner appropriate to his age, she said.
“I was giving him too big of prizes,” she said.
The younger they are, the quicker and smaller the reward — or punishment — should be, she said.
Even just putting a star on a calendar or chart is enough to make Daimian happy.
Velasquez now volunteers at the library, reading Spanish stories for children; she also attends additional parenting classes — to be the best mother she possibly can be.
For more information about First Teacher or to sign up for the newsletter or parenting classes, phone 360-681-2250, email info@FirstTeacher.org or visit the website at www.First Teacher.org.
Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz contributed to this report.Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at arwyn.rice@peninsula dailynews.com.