Y cares for kids at risk

Seeds of Empathy program helps them get ready for kindergarten

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter



Y’s Care eager for your care

The typical price of private child care in Clark County is $30 per day, according to Y’s Care director Leah Reitz, “but nobody here pays that.”

Y’s care is meant to be affordable for low-income working mothers. Clients pay an average of $15-$20 per day, with subsidies and help coming from various state agencies. But lean economic times and budget reductions at the Department of Social and Health Services mean clients are having to dig deeper into their own shallow pockets, Reitz said.

The Y is looking to the public for support. It’s hoping to wrap up a fundraising campaign June 30. If you’re interested in learning more or helping out, visit YWCA Clark County or call 360-696-0167.

—Scott Hewitt

Children who've known hunger, fled domestic violence, lived on the street and suffered other hard knocks often reflect those formative experiences. Poor impulse control, raging emotions, or lack of social skills or empathy for others are common, according to Leah Reitz, who directs the child care program at the YWCA Clark County.

None of that is to say the parents whose children are enrolled in Y's Care aren't up to the job. But it's hard, when you're struggling to survive day to day, to provide structure for your children and model the behaviors that'll help them succeed.

"A lot of these kids are here without ever having learned a lot of boundaries," Reitz said. "They're not going to be available for learning, they're not going to make it in kindergarten if they can't get through the day without hitting someone."

To fight all that fighting, the Y has deployed an experimental curriculum called Seeds of Empathy. Reitz came across the program while hunting for anti-bullying teaching materials. It's aimed at the youngest of preschool children -- the three-to-four-year-olds -- and there's "no better time to get started with them," she said.

"The main focus is getting the child socially, cognitively and emotionally ready for kindergarten," she said. "These are the vulnerable kids who need it the most."

Seeds of Empathy is heavy on language and empathy development. First, there are multiple views of a picture book and lots of discussion of the feelings of the characters. This exercise is led by different teachers at different times, so the kids are exposed to the varying thoughts and feelings different people will naturally bring.

Plus, there are 10 visits, over the course of the school year, with a volunteer family including a newborn baby. The children bring the vocabulary they've been developing to discussions with the family about their feelings and experiences.

"They develop these nuggets of knowledge. They ask about what it's like to be the mom and what it's like to be the baby," said Reitz. They are developing and practicing empathy for others — and learning to "understand and label and be thoughtful about their own emotions," she said. And they watch the young family grow and change over the course of a few months.

A study of outcomes of Seeds of Empathy's parent program, Roots of Empathy, which is aimed at older (K-8) children, found decreases in aggression, increases in caring and parenting skills, the overall perception of a caring classroom -- and lasting results.

"I do see some of my kiddos treating their baby dolls differently," Reitz said. "If they've had the misfortune of a lot of trauma, and if we can show what it's like to empathize, we may be stopping a cycle from happening."

That's just what Rachel Collins reports.

"My kids come home super excited on the days the baby visits the classroom," she said. "They show a lot more interest in babies they see, and they are very nurturing to their little sister."

Collins grew up watching her mother getting beaten up by her father. She vowed that no such thing would ever happen to her, but it did. At age 36, she summoned the courage to flee a rapidly deteriorating marriage in San Diego. Things hadn't grown violent until after the second baby, she said, but by the time she left, the emotional and physical abuse was a near-daily event.

"I know the kids would have been orphaned if I hadn't left," she said. She arrived in Vancouver in August 2010 with "no money, no job, no nothing" — except a local connection. That's Debbie Dover, the executive director of Second Step Housing, a nonprofit agency that serves women and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Dover is Collins' aunt.

Resources in San Diego had been hard to come by, Collins said, but in Clark County she was able to get help from the state Department of Social and Health Services. That help included a full-time child care subsidy so Collins could get back into the workforce. Plus, Dover connected Collins with Y's Care.

Now, Collins works for Second Step, and two of her children have graduated from Y's Care. A third, 4-year-old Alexis, still has a year to go.

"I can see it at home," she said of the positive behaviors nourished by Y's Care and Seeds of Empathy. "It has definitely changed their habits and their ways of treating each other. It has made them kinder."

Best of all: Collins' kids are all getting into helping out around the house. That's their new rental house -- the one Collins has begun renting with her own money. "It's got a big backyard where the kids can play," she said. "It's such a good feeling."

A little bit of help has propelled Rachel Collins from "no money, no job, no nothing," to a leadership position in the community: she chairs the policy council for Head Start, where her Y-graduated kids now go; she volunteers at various nonprofit outfits; and she was the "Face of the Y" during a marketing campaign last year.

"What is amazing about Rachel is the way she has taken off in this community," said Sharon Svec, the Y's spokeswoman.

"They are doing so great," Collins said of her kids. "You'd never know they came from such a bad situation."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.facebook.com/reporterhewitt;http://twitter.com/col_nonprofits.