When Terricca entered Angela Adams’ classroom at Childhaven last year, the then-4-year-old barely talked. Things had happened in Terricca’s past, as they had with many kids in Childhaven’s classrooms, and the preschooler had been removed from her home and adopted by a relative.
It didn’t faze Adams, who has worked at the organization for 30 years. “You get a sense of who kids are,” the teacher said. Then, “you start meeting them where they’re at.”
For Terricca, that meant giving her space and slowly building a relationship. “Are you OK?” Adams might say if she found Terricca hiding under the slide. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
If Terricca wanted to quietly work on activities, that was fine. She excelled at a matching exercise using letters. “She was very, very smart,” recognized Adams, who sometimes put the girl at a separate table to do more advanced work.
Within months, Terricca was bounding into class. “Hey, Miss Angie,” she’d say. “I like your hair today.”
Terricca’s younger brother, Terry, adopted by the same relative, Shauna Robinson, also flourished at Childhaven. He stopped needing constant reassurance and was so comfortable he would run around with a classmate holding hands.
In just a year at Childhaven, Robinson said, “My kids changed so much.”
Childhaven, one of 12 nonprofits that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, works with children who have experienced abuse, neglect and other types of adversity. Sometimes their parents suffer from mental illness or, increasingly, opioid addiction; substance abuse now affects about half of those served by Childhaven. Other times, their families have experienced homelessness or domestic violence.
Founded in 1909 as one of Seattle’s first day-care centers for children of working moms, Childhaven began specializing in therapeutic care and early learning in 1977. Big changes are now afoot in an attempt to help more children, add new services and deal with strains on its budget and gentrification that has pushed many clients out of Seattle.
There have been growing pains, acknowledged programs director Megan Beers. And yet, said CEO Jon Botten: “It’s a very exciting and positive time … We’ve done a really deep dive into what the community needs.”
For Robinson, a 40-year-old administrator for a general contractor, Childhaven was just what she needed at a critical time. In 2016, she recalled, Robinson became an instant parent when the state looked for someone to take in Terricca and Terry. Then a third sibling was born, and the girl came in and out of Robinson’s care. Robinson had help from her partner and his family.
“But I was still overwhelmed,” she recalled recently at a Childhaven fundraiser.
It so happened she was in an online mom’s group with Rhonda Smith, Childhaven’s director of corporate relations and community engagement. Smith talked to Robinson about Childhaven and helped enroll Terricca and Terry in the fall of 2018.
Childhaven worked “magic,” Robinson said. Small classes, with a 1 to 5 teacher-student ratio, offered consistency, she said. “Every day, we’re going to have circle time,” the kids knew. Terricca and Terry also received specialized therapy in speech and movement.
They’ve come so far that you’d never know, from an evening spent in the family’s South Seattle home, that they ever needed special help. Robinson put on music and all of them, sang, danced and jumped about.
Terricca, who once didn’t make eye contact, easily held a visitor’s gaze and smiled. She ran upstairs to put on a Snow White dress and peppered her mom with questions. “Can I have more rice?” she asked at dinner. And later, emerging from the bathroom with an empty soap bottle: “Mommy, can I put this in the trash?”
Terry erupted in giggles as Robinson made a show of trying to correctly position his chair at the dinner table. “Like this?” she asked. “Like that?”
Near bedtime, when Robinson announced cleanup time, the kids went into the dining room-turned-playroom and put away their toys — some donated by Childhaven, along with clothes and other gifts for birthdays and holidays.
Childhaven made her feel part of something larger, she said, and she would like that to continue. Terricca, now 6 and in kindergarten, has aged out of Childhaven’s classes but Terry, 4, could still go.
“I can’t get him there,” Robinson said. Here’s where some of the organization’s changes come in.
Childhaven this year ended its long-running transportation program that picked kids up from home or day care and brought them to classes, then returned them at the end of the day. Instead, it is offering families gas coupons and ORCA cards. Neither works for Robinson, who would have to take off work to drop Terry off and pick him up at the appointed hours.
At the most basic level, Childhaven faced a safety issue. It became aware of a rollover danger with its vans, causing some states to ban schools from using them.
There were broader issues, too. Childhaven was spending $1.2 million a year on transportation, Botten said. That was a consideration amid generally rising costs and flat revenue — last year amounting to roughly $10 million, about 60% from philanthropy and 40% from government contracts and grants. That funded services for about 300 kids, considerably fewer than it once did.
It wasn’t good for kids to spend a long time in transit anyway, Botten said. Many were doing so because, like others affected by gentrification, they live far to the south or north of Childhaven’s First Hill location.
The organization has satellite sites in South King County but, still, Childhaven determined it needed a new approach. “We’re really looking at becoming more community based now,” Botten said.
It started two programs that send mental-health counselors (for children up to 13) and “early intervention” occupational and speech therapists (for those 3 and under) into families’ homes or nearby community spaces.
Demand has been high. “I can’t hire people fast enough,” Smith said she was told by the staffer coordinating the early-intervention program.
Childhaven invested heavily in the programs, bringing its budget into the red. Once the programs are fully up and running, they’ll bring in new sources of government funding, said philanthropy director Kristi Nelson. “We’ll be better financially positioned.”
Childhaven still runs on-site classes but has revamped and broadened them.
It legacy program is now more intensive. Each child’s family in the renamed “Flourish” program, begun in September, is matched with a team of providers: a mental-health counselor, a care coordinator and a “parent partner” who has been through similar experiences. They provide support outside the classroom, including in families’ homes, as with other new programs.
To get the best outcomes for kids, you have to help the adults they spend the most time with, said Beers, the program’s director. That’s why team members work with children’s caretakers as well as the children themselves.
Some families don’t need that level of intensity, though, Beers said. And so, Childhaven also started running classes that are part of the state-funded Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, serving mainly low-income kids. The teacher-child ratio is not quite as low, and there is no extracurricular team involved.
The varied range of services gives more options for families, who might move between programs as their needs change, Botten said. It might also keep families from running from place to place to get different kinds of help.
“The system is way too complicated,” the CEO said.
It’s also inadequate. As part of its rethinking, Botten said, Childhaven looked at measures of children’s health in the community at large and saw no improvement.
Childhaven’s diversification is aimed at scaling up dramatically. Already, upward of 200 more kids are using its services this year than last, bringing the total to roughly 540. Its goal is to serve 3,000 within five years.
Robinson is still hoping her kids will be among them. Despite their progress, she suspects they could benefit from additional therapy. If she can figure out a time that doesn’t conflict with work, she’d like to take advantage of Childhaven’s new home visits. “I think it’s important to have someone besides Mommy,” she said.
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