Harbor Style Harbor Style May 2017 : Page 57
The Florida Center for Early Childhood provides expert prevention, early intervention and support “We envision a time when every child will be loved, nourished, and encouraged to reach their full potential.” While we all wish to have this vision become a reality, it’s the complete focus of The Florida Center for Early Childhood. This nationally accredited nonprofit organization, a union of two original groups – The Family Counseling Center and the Child Development Center – has been working in Southwest Florida for nearly 40 years to “provide expert prevention, early intervention, and support services to young children and their families at risk for academic, social and economic failure.” Being a parent is an important and sometimes difficult job. FCEC offer tools to make the job easier by providing families with the support they need to reach their goals and build a bright future for their children. Its multiple programs allow vulnerable children to overcome some of their developmental and behavioral challenges or mental health disorders that may be obstacles to their success and may create added costs to society. “We’re trying to fulfill our mission so each and every child reaches their potential and are successful in kindergarten, school and life,” said President and CEO Kathryn Shea, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Shea has been helping families for 37 years, 17 of those at FCEC. “I wouldn’t do anything else in the world. It’s not a job, it’s a passion,” she said. And it is a passion shared by 100 full-and part-services to young children and their families. time employees that serve more than 2,500 children and families annually in Charlotte, Sarasota, Desoto and Hardee counties. “Whatever a child or family needs, we will meet,” Shea assured. “We call ourselves ‘The One Stop Shop.’” FCEC campuses in Sarasota and North Port offer what they consider comprehensive therapeutic services, including mental and behavioral health therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. Additional services address child abuse and neglect prevention and early childhood education as well as support and knowledge for the parents and the many grandparents raising grandchildren. ³ HARBOR STYLE | 57 Story by Carol Bruyere I Photography by Steve Donaldson
Nurturing Children & Parents
The Florida Center for Early Childhood provides expert prevention, early intervention and support services to young children and their families.
“We envision a time when every child will be loved, nourished, and encouraged to reach their full potential.”
While we all wish to have this vision become a reality, it’s the complete focus of The Florida Center for Early Childhood. This nationally accredited nonprofit organization, a union of two original groups – The Family Counseling Center and the Child Development Center – has been working in Southwest Florida for nearly 40 years to “provide expert prevention, early intervention, and support services to young children and their families at risk for academic, social and economic failure.”
Being a parent is an important and sometimes difficult job. FCEC offer tools to make the job easier by providing families with the support they need to reach their goals and build a bright future for their children. Its multiple programs allow vulnerable children to overcome some of their developmental and behavioral challenges or mental health disorders that may be obstacles to their success and may create added costs to society.
“We’re trying to fulfill our mission so each and every child reaches their potential and are successful in kindergarten, school and life,” said President and CEO Kathryn Shea, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.
Shea has been helping families for 37 years, 17 of those at FCEC. “I wouldn’t do anything else in the world. It’s not a job, it’s a passion,” she said. And it is a passion shared by 100 full-and parttime employees that serve more than 2,500 children and families annually in Charlotte, Sarasota, Desoto and Hardee counties. “Whatever a child or family needs, we will meet,” Shea assured. “We call ourselves ‘The One Stop Shop.’”
FCEC campuses in Sarasota and North Port offer what they consider comprehensive therapeutic services, including mental and behavioral health therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. Additional services address child abuse and neglect prevention and early childhood education as well as support and knowledge for the parents and the many grandparents raising grandchildren.
Raising Healthy Families
One critical program, Healthy Families, offers parents experiencing stressful life situations and expecting a baby – or raising a baby less than three months old – useful information and assistance and support until the child is five years old. A part of the Healthy Families Florida network, this coaching and support program is known to improve childhood outcomes and increase family self-sufficiency by empowering the parents.
According to the FCEC, family support workers provide free, voluntary, in-home visits designed to give parents information on their child’s growth and development as well as well-baby checks and immunization schedules. They also teach parents how to recognize and respond to their baby’s changing developmental needs, utilize positive discipline techniques, and childproof their homes to prevent childhood injuries. They offer suggestions for fun child and family activities, connect families to other community services they may need and check to see if the child is developing as expected.
Some of the training topics relating to a child’s early development include coping with crying, sleeping or feeding problems or shaken-baby syndrome; encouraging safe sleep; potty training; and promoting good behavior. Additional tips for their child’s future focus on school age children 6-12 and teens, suggesting ways parents can promote and support social development, good behavior and healthy relationships while addressing any adverse experience, managing their use of multimedia and keeping them drug free.
In addition to “positive parenting tips,” parents are also taught how to cope with the daily stress of parenting and how to set and achieve shortand long-term goals to promote positive parentchild relationships
When 17-year-old Port Charlotte student Jerrica Parker realized she was pregnant, she sought help from the Charlotte County Public Schools’ HOPE Academy Teen Parent Program, which provides “a variety of parenting support services for any pregnant student in the district.” The head of the program referred Parker to the FCEC. “She told me that there was a lot of stuff they could help with,” including child care, health and family services and parenting education.
FCEC was a big help throughout her pregnancy, Parker added. They boosted her self esteem and encouraged her to learn appropriate parenting techniques. When her son was born, they made weekly home visits and brought her donated diapers and clothing she could not afford to purchase. They gave her a book, she said, that taught her “a bunch of activities for child development, like reading a book to him to start his thinking process and adding music to teach him motions like crawling and improve his muscle growth.
“Every time I did it he laughed,” Parker said.
“They have a support system,” Parker explained. “In the beginning I felt I was doing everything wrong. It was getting hard.” But if you’re in need and you can’t do it yourself, FCEC is there to help.
Parker and her son have been involved with the FCEC Healthy Family programs for four years, and she is certainly pleased with the results. “What a help they’ve been to me and my son. Now he’s part of Head Start.” She has recommended FCEC’s free program to several of her friends.
Healthy Families also has a Child Abuse Prevention program, accredited by Prevent Child Abuse America/Healthy Families America. According to its website, one of the greatest threats to Florida’s children is abuse and neglect, with an estimated 86,000 incidences statewide each year. This program equips parents with the knowledge and skills they need to create stable home environments so their children can grow up healthy, safe, nurtured and ready to succeed in school and in life
Family support worker Sylvia Robinson has spent the last 17 years as a “home visitor.” She submits to constant training that helps her deal with issues the people she sees deal with in everyday life and gives her ideas on how to help them incorporate their entire family – moms, dads, grandparents and kids – into their lives. “The speakers and training,” she said, “keep us up to date on what’s happening in the community.”
Her biggest challenge, Robinson said, is that there are times she feels she isn’t doing enough. “But when you hear those stories on the other end about something good you did, that helps make up for it.”
Her favorite part of the job is to see someone who came in struggling, like a 15-year-old pregnant girl, achieve their dreams. “If there’s something you said or did that impacted their life, they come back and tell you."
Robinson’s co-worker, Arlene Gadsden, has been a support worker for Charlotte County FCEC for five years. “I love it,” she said. “Watching the moms soar once they’ve overcome some of the obstacles and accomplish things on their own and become a family as a unit? That’s what Healthy Families is all about.”
A single mom herself, Gadsden has three grown children. “I know their struggles…I would have welcomed the chance to have that opportunity of help.”
All FCEC employees seem to enjoy their work, and take pride in their families’ successes. Gadsden decorates her office space with what she calls a “wall of fame” that features photos of the families and kids she’s helped.
Linda Newman, Charlotte County’s Healthy Families Program Director, has also been working with FCEC for 17 years. She said she feels the program is our area’s best kept secret. “Because this is such a positive program, and we work on building parents’ strength, we change lives.”
If families of children over five years of age need continued assistance, they are referred to the Family Center in Port Charlotte.
Importance of Mental Health
FCEC’s Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Division provides diagnostic, therapeutic and early intervention assistance to children from birth to eight years old exhibiting medical symptoms or symptoms of developmental delay.
A young child’s capacity to experience, regulate and express emotions; form close and secure relationships; and explore their environment and learn may be affected by a variety of circumstances such as a parent/child relationship, childhood or school changes and challenges, grief or loss or exposure to a traumatic event.
Infants, toddlers and young children may react to situations with fussiness or difficulties calming down, anger and aggression, fear or anxiety, depression or hyperactivity.
A team of professional mental health therapists that includes Katie Demick, Angie Ramirez and the North Port campus’s lead therapist Melissa Bradley see their clients in their “natural environment,” which could be on-site, in schools or in the client’s home.
They use several innovative intervention and treatment programs designed to meet the need of each family and child and help them with the child’s healthy social and emotional development.
Incredible Years® programs are designed to prevent and treat behavioral problems and promote social, emotional and academic confidence throughout all cultures and socioeconomic groups.
Circle of Security® parenting classes offer parents and caregivers training and assistance in developing healthy family relationships.
Child-parent psychotherapy helps families deal with various forms of trauma, such as serious accidents, domestic violence, sexual abuse or sudden or traumatic death of someone close. The central goal, it is said, is to support and strengthen the caregiver-child relationship to help restore and protect the child’s mental health.
Child-parent relationship therapy teaches caregivers childcentered “play therapies” and “filial therapy” principles and skills, which affect child behavior, levels of parental stress and parental empathy and improve the family relationship. Parents are trained to conduct regular non-directive play sessions, or “special play time,” with their child, creating a safe atmosphere where children can express themselves, try new things, learn social rules and restrictions, develop family attachments and develop effective social skills and bonds.
These types of early intervention can help prevent adverse outcomes in the child’s life.
Another valuable division of FCEC is its Developmental Therapy Program. A “multi-disciplinary team” of speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, infant toddler developmental specialists and behavior specialists as well as teachers, teachers assistants and mental health counselors work together to encourage growth and development of children up to eight years of age that have been diagnosed with diverse medical, mental or behavioral conditions such as pervasive developmental delay; autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD); fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD); cerebral palsy; Down syndrome; hearing impairment; oral, motor and feeding dysfunction; sensory processing problems; physical impairment; speech or language delay; learning disabilities and behavioral difficulties.
Shea said 60 percent of FCEC’s inclusion model is made up of children with special needs due to physical or developmental disabilities or behavioral challenges. She added that they recently brought two Down syndrome children into their program that are not verbal and cannot walk. They hope the assistance and training the family receives may improve their communication and motor skills.
Kim Williams is a 23-year veteran of FCEC. She’s the Director of the Developmental Therapy Department and also fills a vital role as a speech language pathologist. Williams and her team of eight additional professionals and their staff provide diagnostic, therapeutic and early intervention assistance to those children exhibiting medical symptoms or symptoms of developmental delay.
Williams said they work with many children with language delays. Their development of first words or sentences does not occur at the typical age level. Some children have a variety of sensory processing difficulties, she said, like trouble with touch or hearing, or they may be hyper or hypo sensitive to sensations.
“We serve approximately 550 children a year. One child may receive two or three of (our) therapies,” Williams explained. “Speech therapy and occupational therapy is provided on-site or on an out-patient basis. Parents can call and come in for appointments,” she added
Services are provided on-campus to pre-school students, or at Florida Center’s out-patient clinics and in community-based settings.
The Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County has contracted with FCEC to provide needed therapy services to young children
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
FCEC is also known as Florida’s first and only fetal alcohol spectrum disorders clinic, where they diagnose growth, physical, mental and behavioral problems related to a child’s prenatal alcohol exposure. Symptoms can include language, motor and cognitive delays; intellectual and learning disabilities; facial abnormalities; heart, kidney or bone problems; vision and hearing problems; attention, memory, hyperactivity or coordination issues; and lower than average height or weight.
Permanent brain damage to a fetus, caused by maternal alcohol consumption, creates a serious lifelong disability that intensifies with age. Surprisingly, experts say, maternal alcohol use causes significantly more serious and longer lasting problems than maternal drug use.
The younger a child is diagnosed and treated with medication or behavior and education therapy, the better the chance they have to be independent and function well in the community and reduce the possibility of them having a secondary disability later in life.
Vital evaluations, as well as training and education programs for parents, families and individuals age 0-13 affected by FASD, are coordinated within their Families Moving Forward Program.
Director Marina Bunch and her staff offer support to restore optimism and hope, increase parents’ empathy for their child, increase positive parenting and advocacy and teach skills and strategies for care to the parents and caregivers of FASD-affected children.
Another vital program offered by FCEC is the Starfish Academy, a nationally accredited preschool program where highly trained and nurturing educators teach typically developing children, as well as children needing additional support, skills that contribute to their success in school and in life.
The Starfish Academy follows two innovative “developmentally appropriate” curriculums – The Creative Curriculum for Family Child Care® and MindUP™ – that feature exploration and discovery methods of learning, address the strengths and challenges of family child care, increase social and emotional skills as well as learning and scholastic performance of the children, promote optimistic and positive learning and behavior and improve family harmony, trust and mutual respect.
Colorful classrooms and outdoor playground spaces encourage fun activities and stimulate the students’ creative thinking. Daily classes include hand-on experiences, playful actions, music, art and drama as well as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and infant and early childhood mental health therapy coordinated with an on-site therapist.
Designated instruction areas with bright colored themed rugs have been designed to focus on specific topics or learning modes. They include a writing center with alphabet and number posters; music and listening center; reading center with age-appropriate books; healthy eating instruction center to teach appropriate portions of different food groups; dramatic play center; easel and art center with all types of arts and crafts mediums and students’ creations on display; manipulative center where many varieties of craft supplies, puzzles and building blocks are available for use; birthday area, where students’ birth dates are posted for celebration, along with their photos; and rule center suggesting students keep their hand and feet to themselves, use their listening ears, walking feet, and inside voices and clean up after their work
You’ll see lots of smiles in the classrooms and on the playground, but you’ll see even more happiness when the children walk hand-inhand with their parents when they’re picked up after school.
Children are welcome in the North Port and Sarasota campus classrooms, as well as at the after-care programs, from six weeks old until the age of five. If they are under the FCEC health programs, they can participate until they are nine years old.
FCEC also offers free three-hour voluntary prekindergarten (VPK) programs for all Florida children that are four years old or older before September 1 of the program year.
Class and after care hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and schedules are normally consistent with local public school calendars. An eight-week summer program is available for all children to enroll in. Parents are asked to provide individually wrapped meals and snacks for their child, including extra snacks if they are involved in the after-care program. Saran Vaughn is the Academy Principal and Director
Cathleen Simmons, lead teacher in the North Port Academy’s toddler room, calls her assistants “co-teachers.” Though her primary task is to make sure her students learn appropriate skills, you may see her caring for and cuddling a nine-month-old baby.
One of her “co-teachers,” Alexis Carter, said, “I’ve worked with children before, but it was nothing like working here. Especially when I walk into the classroom and see my students’ eyes light up.”
Sarah Bednarek’s four-year-old son, Flynn, has severe autism, was non-verbal and had eating issues when he began receiving occupational, speech and mental health therapy at the age of three. He now attends the Starfish Academy and will begin VPK next season.
Flynn is an only child. “I wanted him to be around other children and be able to socialize a little bit,” Bednarek said. “We had no idea how much he would blossom.”
She said Flynn is starting to talk and interact with people now. Flynn’s teachers are using him as a baseline for success and goals. “In my experience, it’s like a family. There’s a lot of communication between families and therapists. And there’s a lot of services for families that don’t have resources,” Bednarek added.
Fundraising & Outreach
It takes a considerable financial commitment to provide all these critical services. FCEC’s current annual operating budget is $5.3 million. “The hardest part of my job is trying to make the money work,” Shea said. “I’m incredibly blessed to have the most amazing staff. I wish I had the revenue to raise their salaries. They deserve it. They’re very experienced and they work extremely hard, with commitment, compassion and flexibility.”
She added that some of their facilities need to be upgraded and rejuvenated, and they are considering expanding their services to Manatee County. “Sarasota and Manatee are leading the state in families on welfare, and in the court system, due to heroin use,” she commented.
Shea explained that early childhood needs are “grossly underfunded” throughout the country. “If you can’t give them help early they will end up in corrections,” she said. Their programs are vital, but government funding is decreasing, and community foundations aren’t giving as they used to. “We write a lot of grants, but that (resource) is not as dependable as it used to be,” Shea said, adding, “We do a lot of fundraising and outreach, but there are lots of charities competing for the dollars.” Trying to keep up with what they need is keeping Shea up at night, worrying and strategizing.
They currently have a waiting list of local children and families needing their help.
County and state funding from Florida Department of Health, Charlotte County Board of County Commissioners, Sarasota County Government and the Sarasota School Board, along with generous donations from groups like the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, The Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, United Way of Charlotte County, United Way of South Sarasota County and United Way Suncoast, and grants from some organizations like the McCune Family Foundation, aid FCEC in “helping our young children achieve developmentally appropriate milestones,” Shea said.
Donors interested in helping our at-risk youth, financially or by volunteering, should contact FCEC’s Chief Development Officer, Stacy Pinkerton at email@example.com or (941) 371-8820 ext. 1165, for information or to arrange a tour of one of their facilities.
For further information on FCEC, or any of their specific programs or services, call (941) 371-8820 or visit www.TheFloridaCenter.org.
“For every $1 invested in early childhood, more than $8 is yielded in future workforce productivity, increased career achievement, and public safety,” the FCEC website states. “There is no investment with a greater return than our children.”
Shea and her staff invite everyone to help ensure a brighter tomorrow for our children and help The Family Center for Early Childhood achieve its mission of “Building Strong Families…One Child at a Time.”