Donations come in for First Teacher

SEQUIM — Dede Bessey brought her babe in arms, Jorel, to First Teacher for a taste of the world.

He was just a week old when he took his first trip to story time at First Teacher in the west wing of the Sequim Community School, but Jorel fit right in. Like the rest of the preschoolers, he was presented with a free book to take home.

Jorel, now 2, is still coming to First Teacher to listen, read and romp in the playroom. This summer, his mother has been thinking about what this place has given her family.

If she had to quantify it, Bessey would start with the number of books she and Jorel have in their home library: 115, thanks to First Teacher and those who donate to the program.

“We’ve got books coming out of our ears,” Bessey said as Jorel clambered onto the couch with another one. “That’s a good thing.”

Fundraiser, donations

Bessey heard good news on Wednesday, when First Teacher founder Cynthia Martin announced that an Aug. 22 fundraising dinner had netted just under $12,000 for First Teacher — and that donations are still coming in from attendees.

First Teacher faced a funding crisis this summer. The Sequim School District, previously a provider of $42,000 per year for its activities, free newsletter and other parent-support materials, furnished just $10,000 for the 2009-2010 school year.

The school district, like others across Washington state, was coping with its own deep funding cuts resulting from the state’s budget meltdown.

First Teacher’s fans — parents such as Bessey — shifted into high gear to organize the fundraising dinner.

Bette Hyde, director of the state Department of Early Learning, gave the keynote speech, donors gave gifts for the silent auction, the Sequim Boys & Girls Club provided free space for the event and an army of parents set up and cleaned up.

More cooperation

Aside from donatons, another post-dinner benefit was Martin’s meeting with Hyde last Friday.

The two women talked about ways state agencies could cooperate more, and Martin suggested an example: The departments of Health and Early Learning could share birth records and child-care center directories with First Teacher.

Martin and First Teacher’s parent organization, Parenting Matters, could mail parents and caregivers its newsletter and the “developmental cards” that explain babies’ and toddlers’ developmental stages.

In her 19 years running Parenting Matters, Martin has grown only more enthusiastic about her cause. She believes parents are their children’s original and most important teachers, the ones with the power to both inspire and prepare kids to do well in school.

Also on Wednesday, Martin sent a proposal to Hyde’s office. In it, she asks for cooperation from the Department of Early Learning as she sends “tool kits” — newsletter and developmental card subscriptions — to parents of preschoolers across Clallam, Jefferson, Kitsap and Pierce counties.

She suggests starting with mailings to 10 percent of households with babies and toddlers, plus to child-care centers and preschools.

State funding

The Department of Early Learning, which has a budget of $380 million for the 2009-2011 biennium, funds a sweeping array of parent-support measures, including child-care center ratings, referrals and publications to help parents choose day care providers.

But it’s programs such as First Teacher that offer direct support and education for parents, Martin said.

And when Hyde came to Sequim, she heard from those parents.

Nicole Brewer of Sequim, for example, feels something she calls “the middle-class pinch.”

Low-income families have access to good programs for their young children, she said, while affluent parents can choose to send theirs to a Montessori and other topnotch private programs.

But many middle class families are caught between the brackets, Brewer said.

She’s had to ask herself: “Do I work full-time so I can send my child to Montessori school, or do I stay home,” to prepare her kids for kindergarten on her own?

She chose the latter, and said First Teacher has proved priceless.

Brewer and her toddler, Raimey, come to story time at First Teacher on many mornings, and Raimey frolics in the playroom while her mother joins the Parent Connection, a problem-solving group that meets at 10 a.m. Thursdays in the First Teacher library.

Bessey added that without First Teacher, parents may not be aware that before their children start kindergarten, they need particular skills such as reciting the alphabet and writing their names.

Hyde, for her part, expressed admiration for First Teacher.

“Especially in the current economic climate,” she said, “it’s critical that we work together and are creative in finding resources to support families and children. That’s what First Teacher is doing.”

Meanwhile, Martin has applied for grants from the Albert Haller Foundation and Seattle Foundation.

Checks are still trickling in from people who attended the dinner, and the volunteers are sticking close by. This Friday the parents’ team will get together again for a fall cleanup of the play area.

________

Sequim-Dungeness Valley reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at diane.urbani@peninsuladaily news.com.

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