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Zonta grant funds Parent University for Head Start program

By Staff | Jun 7, 2011

The Zonta Club of Sanibel/Captiva recently hosted Debbie Swaiko, parent involvement specialist in Head Start’s Early Childhood Learning Services program.

A $6,000 grant from the Zonta Club of Sanibel/Captiva has helped fund an exciting new program that is giving parents a “head start” – a need that has become as obvious as the need for the children’s Head Start program.

Debbie Swaiko, parent involvement specialists for the Early Childhood Learning Services, recently spoke at a Zonta business meeting to give an update on existing and new programs alike.

“I’m really lucky to spend my days helping the less fortunate,” said Swaiko.

Head Start first developed in 1965 under the Johnson Administration when studies showed that kindergarten children, generally from low-income families, were not succeeding.

“And that’s not right,” Swaiko said.

Head Start is targeted to help four-year-olds before they start kindergarten. Swaiko said the keys to success are education, health and family environment.

It isn’t just the child who needs the head start, though. Children can’t learn if they’re hungry or if there aren’t books in the home, or if they have a toothache. Head Start has brought all of that into the program, even a nurse who makes sure the children have a family doctor and that all the children go to the dentist.

“When we ask parents, ‘What do you need for your family,’ they always say, ‘I just want my child to do well in school,'” Swaiko told the Zonta group.

Families used to be invited to the classroom, but the world has changed. Most families they see are single moms who must work, so it’s no longer feasible to simply invite them to the classroom.

“We have them do home activity with their children, things that do not require supplies the families can’t afford, such as asking their child to count five red things, or set out the spoons at dinner,” Swaiko explained.

Two years ago, a trailer was donated to serve as a classroom, and that’s what was turned into Parent University. The trailer has 14 laptop computers connected to the Internet. Parents can come any time.

“Our goal is to make parents feel safe, comfortable, welcome, encouraged, and supported,” Swaiko stressed. “We hold two-hour classes every Tuesday: English classes, budgeting, parenting and health. We also conduct a parent’s support group.”

Fifty percent of the families taking advantage of the program are Hispanic and their biggest need is to learn English.

“We teach parents about nutrition and discuss the role of violence in the media, teach resume writing and how to job search – sometimes things as basic as how to answer questions property,” Swaiko noted.

The program receives only national funding.

“Our funding barely squeaks us by,” Swaiko said. “If not for Zonta’s grant, we would not have been able to have Tuesday classes. It’s enabled us to hire a bilingual assistant and start a program to give each child a bus pass.”

Zonta’s grant also helped pay for books. Parents are encouraged to read to their children every day, and pre-school books are always needed.

“Books are so expensive,” Swaiko said. “Next year we’ll be having a book drive, and all children’s books are welcome but we particularly appreciate pre-school books, bilingual, and Dr. Seuss.”

Zonta of Sanibel/Captiva, established in 1987, is an active club providing hands-on assistance, advocacy, and funding to strengthen women’s lives on the islands, in Lee County, and around the world through Zonta International. The 70-plus members who live and work on the islands stand behind a commitment that, as successful women, we have opportunities and resources that should be used to enhance our community.

For more information, visit www.zontasancap.com.