United Way Program Gives Children, Parents, Tools to Stimulate Learning

Home visitors help families prepare youngsters for school

By Charlie Specht

Seven years ago, Kimberly Sanders had a lot on her plate. Working as a nurse for Kaleida Health and going to school to earn an education degree, the single mother of three children from Buffalo’s East Side also wanted to give her 5-year-old son, Christian Barnes, a chance to succeed.

A program offered at a neighborhood community center and funded by the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County helped her do just that.

Christian now is a seventh-grader in the Olmsted School’s gifted program. Sanders credits much of her son’s success to the Parent Child Home Program at the King Urban Life Center, 945 Genesee St.

Sanders enrolled her son in the center’s inaugural program, which, adopted from a national model, was designed to help families living in poverty and suffering from a lack of quality education, among other barriers.

“Every step, they were right there with him,” Sanders said. “It has molded him into the young gentleman he is today. The groundwork started with the program and the King Center.”

The free program, which is voluntary and open to parents or families, offers twice-weekly visits from a “home visitor” who brings along games and educational toys for children ranging in age from 18 months to 5 years.

At first, some parents are apprehensive about letting someone they don’t know into their home to teach their child, said Lisa Alexander, coordinator of the program — and Christian’s home visitor. But once trust is established, she said, children can begin to make real progress.

“It just sparked him talking,” Sanders said. “It even helped him

with his language. Christian is a pretty bright child, and this just made him really want to go to school. Every time she came, he was so excited.”

Sanders said the activities — a puzzle with complex shapes, animal and farm toys and other educational devices — helped develop her son’s critical thinking. But it also gave her the reassurance that she wasn’t alone in the fight to give her son a better future.

“It made me feel comfortable with the King Center, and it just made me feel like I was in the family, like everybody was concerned with his well-being,” she said. “Not just learning, [but] health-wise, anything. I didn’t feel like I was by myself. If I even had a personal problem, I could talk to her.”

That support is crucial to a concerned parent, and can make all the difference in a child’s life, Alexander said.

“I believe that it’s what happens in the home, at the very foundation, that makes all the difference,” Alexander said. “If the parents and the child’s family have put a lot of work into that child, exposing them to language literacy and things in community, those children that have this benefit, when they come to school, they’re much more prepared.”

Being prepared even before the first day of school can mean the difference between a child on the edge and a successful adult, said Michael Weiner, president and CEO of United Way of Buffalo & Erie County.

Weiner said 46 percent of children who come from disadvantaged families are not developmentally on track and that 47 percent of Buffalo children live in poverty. He said that before entering school, cognitive scores of children with low-income families are 60 percent lower than those of children from higher socioeconomic groups.

“Anything that we do as a community that gets kids from [ages] 0 to 5 school-ready, it’s more probable that they’re going to be successful in middle school, high school and go on to secondary education,” Weiner said.

The program currently serves 50 families with 10 home visitors. Both Alexander and Weiner noted that the greatest beneficiary of the program can often be the parent.

“We’re really trying to get parents to be the child’s most important teacher,” Alexander said. “It’s the parent that has the most time, the most access with the child. We have to empower that parent to be the most important teacher, to be their advocate. That’s the most critical aspect of the program.”

Sanders gets excited when talking about the type of progress Christian has made.

And Weiner is confident about what awaits Christian and other children benefiting from the program.

“They go on to become our future leaders,” he said.