PORT ANGELES — In Kristen Holloway’s snug living room, Christmas sparkles from all sides. She has two trees: the tall green one festooned with ornaments of all shapes and colors, and the tabletop silver one decorated with all blue ornaments. As she hangs a favorite decoration on the big tree, a smile lights Holloway’s face.
This ornament is one she acquired around the time she and her husband, Aaron, got together close to nine years ago.
She and Aaron are into this holiday, especially since they get to celebrate it with their two boys, Tyler, 6, and Mason, 2, who toddles across the room from tree to tree, inviting a visitor to play with his toy castle.
While his big brother goes to kindergarten, Mason is an Early Head Start student, spending 90 minutes each week playing and learning with home visitor Jacqueline Cook.
They read books together, play color bingo, work on puzzles and “all sorts of things,” Holloway said.
Early Head Start, for prenatal mothers and children up to 3 years old, is part of the Early Childhood Services section at Olympic Community Action Programs, or OlyCAP.
Even as the kids are doing well, it’s been a tough year financially for this household. The loss of a job led to Holloway getting behind on bills, to the point when it was difficult to buy groceries.
A lifelong resident of Port Angeles, she knew OlyCAP offered other programs besides Early Head Start, and when she contacted the agency, staffers connected her with the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which offered vouchers making it possible for her to pay the heating bill.
Then Holloway learned of the Peninsula Home Fund. Supported by direct donations from the residents of Clallam and Jefferson counties, the Home Fund provides gift cards, bus passes, and other basics for families like Holloway’s.
Earlier this year, she and Aaron received gift cards that helped them buy necessities: diapers, laundry soap and other supplies their tight budget couldn’t stretch to cover.
The Home Fund “helped my family more than I can express,” said Holloway, 31.
She looks forward to better times in 2020.
Finding a new job is a top priority.
And her two little boys will also be discovering new things about the world: Tyler as he moves on to first grade and Mason as he completes the Early Head Start program and becomes eligible for Head Start, for 3- to 5-year-olds.
Mason is one of 10 students Cook visits weekly; that’s the maximum number each home visitor can take on. In addition to the educational activities, Early Head Start includes support for the whole family’s health.
“School readiness is a big component,” Cook said. “We encourage the parent to become the child’s first teacher, and we make sure their well-child checkups and immunizations are getting done — anything they need.”
Early Head Start also has get-togethers for students and their folks every month. The parents can socialize and watch the children play at these gatherings, held in Port Angeles and in Sequim.
In Port Townsend, Early Head Start has a center-based program serving eight youngsters. For the older kids, Head Start has its classrooms in Port Townsend, Chimacum, Port Angeles, Sequim and Forks.
Both Early Head Start and Head Start are full and have waiting lists, but Diana Assumpcao, who provides family support for OlyCAP’s Early Childhood Services, encourages parents — and expectant parents — to contact her.
Families qualify based on a point system, she said, that weighs pressing financial need, diagnosed handicaps and other factors. A family may find it has a situation that pops the child to the top of the list, Assumpcao said.
Applications are available via www.OlyCAP.org, by phoning the agency in Clallam County at 360-452-4726 or Jefferson County at 360-385-2571. OlyCAP’s offices are open for in-person visits too at 228 W. First St., Suite J, in Port Angeles’ Armory Square, and 823 Commerce Loop in Port Townsend.
“We take applications year round,” added Assumpcao, “and you never know when slots are going to be open.”
Cook, for her part, finds Early Head Start utterly rewarding — for herself and for her students.
“The smiles … the loves you get from the children, and the nice, warm hugs. Nothing can replace that.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.