UW’s new facility on Jefferson Street will give Lafayette’s under-served children a strong foundation for their education.

By Lisa Hanchey

cprLafayette’s under-served kids are getting a head start where it’s most needed — right in downtown Lafayette. This month, United Way of Acadiana’s Early Learning Center’s first stand-alone facility is opening its doors at the former Lafayette Motors location on Jefferson Street. The center helps low-income women and children (birth to 36 months) engage in early learning opportunities. “We believe that if we can start early, then we will give every child an opportunity to be ready for school,” says Angela Mason Morrison, chief of community impact for United Way of Acadiana.

Prior to opening the center, United Way of Acadiana’s Early Head Start program launched a home-based program where instructors worked weekly with pregnant mothers to help their children reach developmental milestones. With the addition of the building, the United Way will now offer site-based services through the Early Learning Center. “The families actually bring their babies here, and they are able to participate in learning activities onsite with teachers, teachers’ assistants and care-givers,” Morrison explains.

In 2010, United Way received a multi-year grant for more than $3 million from the federal Administration for Children & Families Office of Head Start to launch the Early Learning Center, beginning home-based services in 2011. ELC offers free childcare and early childhood education programs, as well as prenatal services for expectant women, for qualifying families in Vermilion Parish and the 70501 zip code in Lafayette Parish. Services include developmentally appropriate educational activities, dental, health and mental health services, family visits and socializations. The program has the capacity to serve a total of 103 children in both parishes. “We are excited about getting started and having a center-based program now available for the families,” Morrison says.

After obtaining an award letter from the feds, United Way started searching for its own building in the 70501 area, which was deemed to be most in need for this type of service. Fortunately, the Lafayette Motors location was available for purchase and was the right size in the right location — and near United Way of Acadiana’s main office on Pinhook Road. The center-based facility holds up to 36 children.

Under the guidance of E. L. Habetz Builders Inc. and architect Chad Abell, the vacant car dealership space was totally transformed into bright, cheery classrooms accented with colorful walls and tiles. The showroom space was divided into five classrooms with teacher pods along with offices for the home visitors. Classes are categorized for infants, toddlers up to 24 months and 24 to 30-month-olds, with developmentally appropriate activities for each group. The infant room has four brand new cribs, high chairs and soft toys. After age 3, kids are transitioned into other Head Start or school programs.

At the Early Learning Center, teachers follow a daily schedule with time allotted for education, games, music, dramatic play, socialization and napping. Youngsters are taught basic skills such as brushing their teeth, eating with their families and using the bathroom. Parents are instructed on diaper changing and other caretaking activities. Children can attend five days a week from 7:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with aftercare available until 5:30 p.m. for parents who work or attend school.

Outside is space dedicated to a playground with a padded floor, a sand and water table, playhouses and potted plants. The center is seeking donations of plants and equipment for the kids.

Headed by Lafayette Center Director Annette Victor, the Early Learning Center houses 10 teachers, a health and disability specialist and three home visitors. The program is open to families meeting certain income levels and other criteria, particularly teenage mothers and handicapped children. “We are trying to recruit more young moms into our program so we can help them through their pregnancies and getting their children into a good place before they have to go back to school,” says Vanessa Espree, executive director of the Early Learning Center. “We want our teen moms to go back to high school and graduate so that they can continue to be able to support their children.”

Families who participate in Head Start programs such as the Early Learning Center have positive results. “Research has shown that if we are able to start with babies from birth, then we can really make an impression on how well they do in meeting their developmental milestones,” Morrison says. “On the other end of the continuum, that means they will graduate from high school on time and become productive in the community. United Way of Acadiana is very excited to be able to contribute in this way.”

The Early Learning Center is accepting applications for its home-based services. For more information, call (337) 534-0683.

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