In December 2016, I was fortunate enough to attend the national Zero to Three conference in New Orleans, Louisiana as a representative of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, where I am a lead early childhood teacher. I was excited to attend this conference, which was focused on understanding and detecting infant mental health issues. Not only was I going on my first business trip to New Orleans, I also knew I was going to be surrounded by amazing, intellectual early childhood educators, policy makers, and other professionals who work closely with children and families like myself.
During the conference, I felt excited, eager to learn, and a sense of belonging. When they unveiled the conference catchphrase, “Think Babies,” my eyes lit up! I immediately began to think about the families and infants I work with in HPAC’s Family School Skills Program. In Family School Skills, we help support parents/caregivers of infants and toddlers to increase their child’s social-emotional development and school readiness skills through play and literacy activities. We also discuss the importance of nurturing and understanding seven main executive functioning skills (Focus and Self Control, Perspective Taking, Communication, Making Connections, Critical Thinking, Taking on Challenges, and Self Directed and Engaged Learning) and their impact on learning and lifelong success. This class is important for families of infants and toddlers because it’s the first stepping stone in getting their child ready for school and creating a love for learning.
I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride after attending many workshops, listening to guest speakers, and engaging in conversations with other professionals. As I learned more about the positive impact that strong relationships have on children’s learning and overall mental health, I reflected on all of the positive relationships that I have built with families and children throughout the years. And even more how, because of that, they now have a better chance at breaking the cycle of poverty and increasing their educational opportunities. One speaker in particular, Bryan Stevenson, emphasized that the bond and communication between families and workers in the social service field is key for families’ growth and to overcome certain mental health issues. Mr. Stevenson is an American lawyer and social justice activist who has spent his career challenging bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system, especially children.
His message, passion, and compassion were contagious. In his inspiring speech, he outlined four actions we all can do that would change the world for the better. His drive, love, and passion for helping all of humanity, especially children who are at a disadvantage, instantly connected with me.
As he spoke, I recognized the that the four values and actions he described as the pathway to serving the community are also reflected at HPAC in all of our work:
- We are proximate with the families and community we work in.
Being proximate means to get up close and personal with your clients or the families you work with. Visit the communities they live in. Learn about their culture, social and physical environment and expectations. At HPAC, we are always committed to building trusting positive relationships with parents and their children. Our work extends outside of the office space. Our relationships are so strong that families invite us into their personal lives to share special moments with them like celebrating a new baby or meeting their family members that visit from their native country. We are invited into our families’ homes with open arms. They are happy to share their progress with us, trust that we are here to encourage, and motivate them to fulfill their dreams and their dreams for their children.
- We focus on changing the negative narrative that is attached to poverty and race, and concentrate on our strengths and assets of our community.
Despite the negative perception of the community we work in and the often disheartening statistics, I believe that perception is short-sighted and does not take into account the many strengths of the families that live here. I am dedicated to providing the families and children with the resources they need to educate themselves and move towards building fulfilling lives. I reassure families, I know they are doing the best they can and want the best for their children regardless of their circumstances, and I share that knowledge with others.
- We remain hopeful with our clients at all times
Regardless of our families’ socioeconomic status, education level, or past addictions, I remain hopeful. I know that every parent wants to do the right thing for their child and remain hopeful that when it comes to their child’s school readiness and social-emotional development, they will. I believe there is good in each family that attends our program and that they are committed to changing their lives, and the lives of their children, for the better.
- We are OK with getting out of our comfort zone.
My whole New Orleans experience was life-changing. It has impacted me personally and professionally on so many levels. What I learned in New Orleans, my passion for early childhood, and the pride that I have in the families I work with at HPAC is continuously inspiring to me and pushes me to do whatever it takes to bring attention to the babies of Hunts Point. Even when bringing attention to Hunts Point means getting out of my comfort zone, such as publishing this piece and making my voice heard: Think Babies! Because every child matters. And as Clifford, the Big Red Dog tells us, “Love makes little things grow!”
Reina Garcia is the Lead Early Childhood Teacher at the Hunts Point Alliance for Children