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Supporting families at St. James

Esther Mendez is the Early Care and Education coordinator, Early Achievers coordinator, and a family support specialist at St. James Family Center.

"She wears a lot of different hats, but she really is our expert on early care and education," SJFC Director Beth Hansen said.

Family support and parent involvement are part of the focus of ECEAP, which stands for Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program and the Early Achievers Program, which sets a standard of care for children and families throughout Washington State.

There is more expectation of family involvement in child care than there used to be, according to Hansen.

Because of these programs, Mendez and other staff are in a better position to provide families appropriate resources and assist any who may be looking for ways to improve their situations, while ensuring SJFC is a safe and inclusive space for all.

As part of ECEAP, which is pronounced E-Cap, part of Mendez's job is to work with parents to develop their own goals, which in turn can provide a more stable environment for the child. It might begin with increasing self-sufficiency in any number of areas, including housing, education, work, or careers.

"The idea is that all these different pillars support this bridge and all these different pillars affect each other," Mendez said.

She asks questions and together they identify areas where the parent might be struggling, to determine if she or he might need a little support, or if it's time to set a goal. If it's a desire to go back to school, Mendez will help the person figure out how to do that, or if it's to develop a career, they consider how to get there one step at a time.

"We help them identify strengths, goals, and dreams, and find where they need extra support," Mendez said.

Parent's issues can be more simple and immediate as well. Mendez has provided gas vouchers or diapers if need be. She's also shared parenting tips on things like discipline and potty training. If a family is new to the community, SJFC helps them locate resources and provides ways to engage them with other families.

"They may not know we have a clothing bank. They may not know how to access Health and Human Services for any of the things that they do," Hansen said.

They connect families with WIC, a supplemental nutrition program for women, children, and infants. They help families find medical and dental care. They provide developmental screenings, health screenings, vision and hearing screenings.

If there is a concern, Mendez said, for instance, if a child didn't hear all the frequencies in a hearing screening, SJFC can get the child a follow up with a medical provider.

Or maybe they require glasses.

"This year, we ended up with several kids that needed glasses after the screenings that we did," Mendez said.

Or maybe it's just connecting them to Wahkiakum on the Move, so they can tap into medical runs, to make sure their kids get to medical and dental appointments.

Mendez has helped many people over the years. On one occasion she helped a grandparent realize the goal of guardianship for her grandchildren.

"It's very rewarding when the family comes back and there's a hug, and you know the kids are safe," Mendez said.

The ways they help at SJFC go on and on.

All this isn't on any one person. It takes a team, and Mendez works hand in hand with teachers, who are on the front line with the kids and families.

Sometimes a teacher sees something, but it's Mendez who follows up. For instance, one student's attendance had become spotty, They later learned it was because there were transportation issues.

"We're kind of that early learning hub," Hansen said, "and we have all of these things going on, but because we are all in one place, we can work to make sure that the families are getting all of these services that they might need, or have the option of doing all of these different things that can be supportive of them, instead having to go here, here, here, and here."

The Early achievers program, which focuses on QRIS or Quality Rating Improvement System, gives a baseline for quality childcare and preschool statewide.

It means that staff are constantly assessing themselves and their interactions, as well as child outcomes, the environment, the curriculum, and activities.

And improving those things requires constant education for the staff as well.

"One of the goals we were just working on was inclusion, which involves gender, and sexuality," Mendez said, "being inclusive of families and children who might be part of that community.

"We want to make sure we are serving our families to the best of our abilities," Mendez added.

"We just had a little staff training on that, but that's typical for a lot of things, as things come up," Hansen said. "We're going to make sure we provide the information that staff need, the ability for staff to be able to ask questions, and to interact with each other and having a broad discussion, to talk about whatever situations come up."

Hansen is proud of her staff at St. James. She has a core group she can rely on, that have been with the center for more than four years, and are committed to growing along with the kids and their families.


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