Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Caring for the whole child at SJFC

It was a quiet day when I visited St. James Family Center the week after school got out for the summer, but teachers assured me that would change in the coming weeks. The youngest kids were contentedly playing with each other or by themselves in their classroom, while the school age kids, full of energy, charged around the gym for awhile before heading upstairs to their own classroom for other activities.

St. James provides childcare for kids aged two and a half to five, and five to 12. Youth are dropped off as early as 7:30 a.m. and some stay until 6 p.m., Esther Mendez told me.

Mendez is the early care and education coordinator, the early achievers coordinator, the family support specialist, and sometimes she steps into the role of teacher when staff is out for one reason or another.

She's been working at St. James since she was in high school, first through a summer youth employee program. Her mom worked at the center for years, and her dad was a janitor there.

After graduating from Wahkiakum High School, Mendez started at Lower Columbia College with a notion to study nursing, but realized quickly that it wasn't for her.

"I knew I wanted to work with kids," she said.

So she set her sights on an early childhood degree and eventually returned to work at St. James.

"I don't get bored," Mendez said. "Not one day is the same. It depends on kids personalities that day. If a kid is having an off day, it keeps our day interesting. I definitely enjoy the family support piece. Its so rewarding and feels good when I have a family come back to me and say we wouldn't be where we are without your help."

Childcare in one way or another is the name of the game at St. James, but they really do put the "family" in St. James Family Center, with a holistic approach in bolstering children's lives, which includes supporting parents and guardians.

There is so much that goes into the work there, and Mendez is just one more marvelous piece of the puzzle.

During the school year, St. James provides child care before and after school for school age kids, and in the summer, it's an all day affair.

First and foremost there is the care and education of the kids. There must be an art to monitoring all the kids at once, while noticing that one is struggling with a pair of scissors, and another is having trouble with "th" sounds. Everyone on staff has some background in early childhood development, and while children are focused on the business of play, the teachers and staff are considering the wellbeing of each child, whether it's social/emotional, kinetic, or speech and language.

And they are talking to each other, the school district, and other agencies to make sure there is continuity in meeting the challenges in each child's life.

"We have kids who may have been in crisis management or counseling in school, and we can continue to carry that over here, to make sure the kid gets that intervention," Mendez said. "Or kids with Individualized Education Programs, which we have copies of, and use to provide daily activities and things for them to work on improving those skills."

It might be a speech delay, or a problem with fine or gross motor skills, for instance, so that child will have specific goals to attain, and skills to practice, and all of their teachers are on the same page, so the learning doesn't get lost.

"A lot of the things that we do in child care, we do in preschool too," SJFC Director Beth Hansen said. "We try to complement. A lot of our students transition back and forth. That is not common in a lot of places."

Which is another great thing about St. James. In bigger cities, working parents have to consider how they will transport a child from child care to preschool, while youngsters here never have to leave the building to do the same.

And meanwhile, in many of those communities, there are not enough preschool slots for kids. That is not an issue here.

All the training the teachers have along with all the hours they spend with the children means they are attuned to potential issues, and are willing to provide early intervention and connect families to services they might need.

"It definitely takes the ability to multitask," Mendez said. "You might be working with one child individually, but your eyes and ears are aware of what is happening everywhere else."

"In the last several years, the state has really tried to increase the quality of childcare," Hansen said. "We've always had a high quality child care, but part of what comes with increasing the quality of child care is increasing funding. Funding has never been on par for child care programs like it is for K-12, unfortunately, because those early years are just as important, and those before and after school programs are just as important."

According to Hansen, that might be changing, as the state is looking for different ways to increase funding, which makes childcare more accessible for low income families.

One of those ways is through a Working Connections Childcare Program, which is a subsidy for families of qualifying income to get financial assistance for childcare. SJFC doesn't handle the applications, but they welcome the subsidies offered by the state.

"We can help the families with the process," Hansen said, "as it can be challenging. Once they've completed the process, we get notified by the state about their co-pay, and the state pays the rest."

"That's really good for families," Hansen said. "The state is trying to make it easier to access, and easier to qualify and also increasing the funding so more families can qualify and more centers can get that funding. Not all centers take it and some private pay places don't take it, because of what is involved in the paperwork and in qualifying."

For more information or to enroll your children in the childcare or the school age child care program at SJFC, call 360-795-8612.


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