“I see them as my family:” Wellspring Family Services shows Tukwila mom how stress can affect the minds of her young children — and how she can keep them safe and happy.

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At the age of 2 years and 11 months, Kristen Antwi already knows her mind.

Most days, the exuberant youngster offers high-fives and chatters happily with her teachers and fellow preschoolers at Wellspring Early Learning Center. But when something is bothering her, she’s not afraid to speak up.

“She’ll tell me: ‘Mommy, I’m sad. Mommy, I’m mad at you,’ ” said her mother, Linda Awuah, a note of wonder — and pride — in her voice.

When Awuah was growing up in the West African nation of Ghana, her parents would have been shocked by such outspokenness from a child.

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“Being here at Wellspring, it has opened my mind to a different perspective,” Awuah said. “I appreciate the fact that my daughter can actually tell me how she’s feeling, because then I know how to approach her and deal with situations.”

Nurturing bonds between kids and parents is just one way Wellspring Family Services seeks to break the cycles of homelessness, poverty and dysfunction that can trap families in a downward spiral. With programs that also offer housing assistance and target domestic violence, the nonprofit helped nearly 4,000 children and families in Seattle and King County last year, in addition to providing clients nearly $850,000 worth of donated clothing and supplies through its in-house Baby Boutique.

Wellspring, which is among a dozen nonprofits supported by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, is also a leader in using brain science to understand — and fight — the root causes of homelessness.

A growing body of neurological research shows that toxic stress early in life can harm young minds, explained Megan Beers, the group’s director of early-childhood mental health. Whether from family conflict, gnawing insecurity or the threat of violence, stress can change the wiring of the developing brain, which can in turn predispose children to learning and behavioral problems.

“A brain that’s stressed can’t learn,” Beers said.

Without intervention, mental patterns locked in during childhood can hamper a person’s ability to cope and prosper as an adult.

“We know that early stress has a disproportionate impact on executive function — the ability to plan, and organize and control emotions,” Beers said.

Few situations are more stressful for a family than ending up homeless — as Awuah knows.

She emigrated from Ghana in 2013 at the age of 29, partly because family members were pressuring her to submit to the traditional practice of female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation. Her first stop in the U.S. was Massachusetts. A friend let Awuah stay in his home, and Kristen was born several months after she arrived. But the friend kicked them both out when Awuah refused his advances.

“I was devastated,” Awuah said. “I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know anyone.”

Her only option was a shelter. “It was so hard on me,” she recalled. “I was crying all the time.”

Wellspring Family Services

The organization helps families experiencing homelessness find homes and helps families at risk of becoming homeless stay off the streets. Wellspring offers specialized early learning for children who have experienced trauma, teaches abusive partners nonviolent behaviors, and helps parents nurture bonds with their children to forge strong relationships. Last year, Wellspring provided housing assistance for nearly 4,000 children and families.

Though Awuah didn’t realize it at the time, the situation was also hard on Kristen. The baby would wail for hours and shake so hard that after they moved to Seattle, Awuah took her to the emergency room.

Your dollars at work

Samples of what Wellspring can do with your donation:

$25: Provides a homeless child new socks, underwear, toothbrush, soap and other supplies.

$50: Provides baby formula for a week for a homeless family.

$100: Provides nutritional meals and snacks for a child for one month in Wellspring’s Early Learning Center.

For information: https://wellspringfs.org/

There was nothing physically wrong. But then Awuah began learning that her own despair over being homeless might have impacted her child.

She was devastated again.

Just thinking about it today makes her cry. “I wish she didn’t have to go through that.” Awuah said, tears running down her cheeks. “I wish I could change it.”

Though it’s impossible to change the past, it is possible to minimize the effects of early trauma, Beers said. “We know the best buffer for young brains is to have a caregiver that can support their emotional needs and be that safe haven for them.”

That’s what Wellspring strives to do with its Early Learning Center and programs for parents.

With two teachers and a therapist for every 10 students, all children get personalized attention that includes helping them understand and express their emotions and resolve conflicts. The transformation in Kristen has been astounding, said center director Bevette Irvis.

“You can just see her blossoming. Her language skills, her coordination and just this confidence she exudes.”

Awuah’s 15-month-old son, Kennedy Antwi, also attends the center. He’s more reserved than his sister, Irvis said, but is also doing great.

Every year, about 80 children enroll in the Early Learning Center, and there’s always a waiting list.

Through Wellspring’s parenting programs, Awuah, 32, learned the importance of making her children feel secure, while also giving them the freedom to explore.

“I’ve learned a lot about parenting that I didn’t know before,” she said.

Awuah herself was quiet and withdrawn when she started coming to Wellspring, Irvis said. “Now she has developed great relationships. She talks with everyone, sharing what happens in her life.”

It’s been like finding a new home, Awuah said. “I see them as my family.”

Reducing family conflict and giving parents new coping skills is part of Wellspring’s multilayered approach to battling homelessness, Beers explained. The first step is housing assistance.

But families with high levels of dysfunction can easily wind up on the streets again when tensions erupt, or parents are pulled away from work to deal with misbehaving children.

“High levels of family stress contribute to homelessness,” Beers said. “A large number of the families we serve are homeless due to domestic violence, and many have been involved in the child-welfare system.”

For Awuah, having her children in the Learning Center freed her up to continue her education. She enrolled in South Seattle College, where she had to start over in many subjects despite having earned a degree in Ghana.

She expects to finish her associate degree in the spring and has started applying to nursing schools with the goal of specializing in psychiatry.

But her family’s economic situation remains precarious.

When she first arrived in King County, Awuah and Kristen roomed with a Ghanaian woman in Federal Way. When the woman had to move, Awuah was forced to scramble again.

“I kept moving and moving and moving,” she said.

Along the way, she met a man, fell in love and they had Kennedy. Now, the family splits the rent on an apartment in Tukwila with another friend — but their roommate is moving on and the lease expires in March.

Awuah’s boyfriend works cleaning rooms in a downtown Seattle hotel, but doesn’t make enough money to pay for an apartment on his salary alone.

“By March first,” Awuah said, “I don’t know where I’m going to go.”