Wellspring served more than 2,100 families last year that were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, filling a need that continues unabated despite a slightly improving economy. But Wellspring's focus is on the pre-elementary years for homeless children.

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Max Salas built a toy house, magnetic block by magnetic block, with the tunnel focus of a 5-year-old at play. He plopped a Matchbox car into his creation, effectively adding a garage, and turned to his mother with delight.

“Look, mom, the car!” Max said, pointing to his creation.

For Max, such moments represent a milestone in his development. Since he started at Wellspring Family Services’ comprehensive child-care program a year ago, his vocabulary and social skills have skyrocketed, unlocking his innate creativity.

They’re also milestones for his mother, Hortencia Salas.

She was five months pregnant with Max when she was stabbed in the heart in a brutal domestic assault. She survived that, and a plunge into homelessness and depression. Wellspring helped with that, too, providing both short-term and long-term housing.

The nonprofit agency, among those benefiting from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, has been helping Seattle families on the brink since 1892. Wellspring served more than 2,100 families last year that were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, filling a need that continues unabated despite a slightly improving economy, CEO Ruthann Howell said.

“The length of this recession has been very wearying. I don’t feel the light at the end of the tunnel for that need,” said Howell.

Wellspring itself has weathered the recession. It has been able to maintain the four, 10-kid comprehensive child-care classrooms, including Max’s, in part because community donations steadily grew, rising 17 percent last year. Adding a fifth classroom would cost about $300,000, Howell said.

Howell said Wellspring’s focus on the pre-elementary years for homeless children — improving literacy, behavioral skills, providing medical care and meals — is a proven, evidence-based way to stop generational poverty.

“If you really want to effect long-lasting change, you do it with the children.”

Boyfriend’s attack

In the summer of 2008, Salas, now 40, had just bought a new Subaru, blending in with her Wallingford neighbors. She and her sister operated a successful banquet-serving company, working in elite Seattle hotels.

She returned from work the night of Aug. 16, tired and hungry, to find her boyfriend of 18 months, Carlos Galvin-Diaz, drunk. He’d never hit Salas but had a history of domestic violence.

In the midst of an argument, Galvin-Diaz attacked Salas’ 11-year-old daughter, Kimberly, but she escaped when her mother grabbed his shirt. He shoved Salas, pregnant with Max, down a flight of stairs, and then stabbed her with a utility knife in the side of her stomach.

The wound didn’t harm Max — he was born healthy, 8 pounds, months later — but it did pierce her heart. She had heart surgery at Harborview Medical Center, and needed a second surgery a year later.

Unable to work, Salas burned through savings, selling a computer and household items. She moved in with her sister in White Center, but struggled with depression. “I would fight myself to get up out of bed before Kimmie came home from school,” she said in a tearful interview. “I didn’t want Kimmie to see me sleeping all the time.”

Slow recovery

Wellspring stepped in with transitional housing, and Salas slowly recovered in counseling. Diaz-Galvin was sentenced in 2009 to 20 years in prison, but Salas said she is still working to forgive herself for putting her children in the situation.

“I don’t feel hate, or bad feelings. Instead, I am grateful Max is here with me,” said Salas. “One day I will be able to look back, and just think it was a nightmare I dreamed about.”

Max Salas arrived at Wellspring’s child-care program for homeless children a year ago, and teacher Ty Lewis quickly noticed he was a “kinesthetic child.” He wasn’t verbal, and communicated through hitting.

At other child-care centers that could result in expulsion. But Wellspring doesn’t kick kids out.

It has the elite National Association for the Education of Young Children certification, stamping it as one of the best. Wellspring classes have one highly trained teacher for every five children, with support from counseling and nursing staff, and additional support for parents. The organization picks up and drops off kids throughout the city, and provides two meals, serving children ages 1 through 5.

Lewis and the Wellspring staff zeroed in on Max’s vocabulary. They encouraged Salas to read at home, and switch out of her native Spanish and speak to Max in English.

Soon, he was reminding his mom to “turn off the light,” to “wash your hands.” He comes home singing and loathes being picked up early.

Creative leap

“It was like a sponge,” said Salas. “As soon as he started talking, he just started repeating all the words he heard.”

Now able to describe his needs, his wants and his feelings, Max’s creativity took off. Lewis said his playtime creations — bumble bees out of beads and wonderfully symmetrical block projects — also show solid math skills.

“Max, he’s come a long way,” said Lewis. “The growth is just amazing.”

He is getting ready to graduate from the class and head to a new preschool. That makes Salas nervous. She’s now working regularly again at Seattle’s elite hotels, and is looking for a new child-care arrangement.

“I’m going to have to learn all their tricks,” she said of Wellspring.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @jmartin206.