‘Come into my garden’

Children’s Garden helps at-risk children blossom

By Carol Weaver

COLUMBIA—The cost of childcare continues to rise across the nation, and families have to decide where or whether to send their children for early childhood education—and how they can afford it. Homeless and impoverished families especially struggle with these decisions.

But at least at Vital Connections of the Midlands Children’s Garden Child Development Center in Columbia, many homeless, unemployed and underemployed families can breathe a little easier.

Children’s Garden, located inside College Place United Methodist Church, is a nonprofit early education center that caters to families with children aged 6 weeks to 5 years, many living in poverty. The Children’s Garden offers its services while the families work, search for work, go to school or find a place to live, giving the children the opportunity to learn and interact in an educational environment that might otherwise not be accessible to them.

Accredited with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Children’s Garden is one of about 10 percent of centers in the nation that are eligible for the difficult process of reapplying for this accreditation every five years. The Garden is also one of three programs under Vital Connections of the Midlands, which serves young children and their families experiencing homelessness, poverty and crisis.

Between Site Manager Tamara Canzater, the teachers and the volunteers, the Garden makes sure it is very hands-on with the children. Canzater herself wears many hats throughout the day; her jobs can range from answering phones, holding tours and overseeing diaper changes to entertaining the kids while a teacher is focusing on one child. All of the teachers have a minimum of an associate’s degree and work to ensure children reach their age-appropriate milestones and are academically and socially ready for school. Some of the volunteers are parents with children who attend Children’s Garden; they want to help out, as well as be a part of their child’s education, which the Garden recommends.

Tasha Raye is a volunteer whose two boys, ages 2 and 3, attend Children’s Garden. Her sons had been in traditional daycare prior to this, and Raye said she’s noticed more intimacy at the Garden.

“They’re definitely more engaged,” Raye said. “They even express things I haven’t even taught them at home.”

Raye often hears her children mention what they know about shapes or colors as it pertains to their lives, and she appreciates the difference in their learning. She said at other childcare centers she “didn’t see much learning;” they did more babysitting than teaching.

The children and families are invited to attend the events and services at the church, though Children’s Garden is not affiliated with College Place. In classes, they learn subjects by engaging in small group activities that simultaneously help them work on their social skills and manners. The teachers also combine life lessons and skills with games.

“I like to go in centers,” 4-year-old Saniah Lee said. Centers are learning activities spread out into sections that the children participate in and then rotate. The centers normally have one main subject, and each station uses a different method to teach it. The subjects can range from math to shoe-tying to colors and more.

Saniah also likes learning “housekeeping,” where she said, “You feed babies and try on dresses.” Housekeeping is a role-playing activity where the children can emulate what parents or brothers and sisters do around the house, like cooking, cleaning or taking care of babies (dolls). They get to dress up and learn these roles as they play.

Five-year-old Anyiah House-Barn also likes housekeeping, the library, art and Legos. Like most childcare facilities, Children’s Garden also has naptime, though Anyiah insisted, “I don’t like to go to sleep.”

Academically, the teachers are observant about how prepared kids are for school.

“Usually they put out a lesson plan every week, and they write [lessons] on the board each day,” Raye said.

When test scores are low, the teachers then know what to focus on. While each day is different, every day sees both students and teachers focused, Raye said.

The Garden also tries to encourage the parents’ engagement so the child’s education persists at home. Raye shows her engagement by letting her children see her involvement at the center and her interest in their education. Parents should stay involved early; if the children see it, it keeps them responsible, she said. As a parent and volunteer, Raye does anything from helping with snacks to sitting in on an interview with the policy council.

“Even if I just sit in the classroom, I enjoy being involved,” Raye said.

Children’s Garden is as hands-on with the parents as it is with the children. Canzater tries to “meet them where they are, and try to help them get to where they want to be,” she said. While the kids are sure to be nurtured and educated at the Garden, the parents are cared for as they try to improve their situations. Canzater sits with the family, lets them share as much as they’re comfortable with and helps them set goals that they want to reach.

“It can be something as simple as giving them my referral list of different agencies that can help them; sometimes it can be making a phone call and just saying, ‘Hey, I have this family. Can you help them?’” Canzater said. “It depends on what their situation is, then we can direct them in the right way.”

The treatment of the children is important, as well. Canzater said they are treated like “normal” kids, despite what their financial situations are.

“Children are children. They just want to be loved, accepted, feel wanted and have their basic needs met,” Canzater said, noting some children have never been in centers before and have to make that social transition. “I’ve got some that came in that barely wanted to talk to you, didn’t want to hug you­—those kinds of things. Now they’re running through the door, trying to get into class to be with their friends.”

While Children’s Garden is supported by grants, donations from the community help the center continue to assist families. Tax-deductible donations could be financial blessings that cover a family’s tuition or donated items such as unscented baby wipes; nonperishable, nutritious food items; non-scented, mild laundry detergent; and more. Gift certificates or gas cards from Target, Office Depot and other stores greatly assist families, as well.

The most important thing about the Garden, parents say, is how it helps families rise above their circumstances and “ripens” the children’s minds for the future.

“We may be at the bottom for economical reasons, but our children have a chance to have it not show through education and social skills,” Raye said.

For more information about the Children’s Garden or how to help: 803-333-0608 or [email protected]

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