The infectious chirping of children’s laughter greets visitors. Pigtails fly as a little girl rounds the playground on a tricycle, her smile as bright as the sun. This scene could take place at any of Santa Barbara’s high quality preschool programs, with one exceptional difference–this is Storyteller Children’s Center and these children are homeless.
Founded in 1988 by volunteers who pushed aside cots at Transition House to make space for a small group of children, Storyteller has a come a long way from those humble beginnings.
“We started out as a half-day program for about ten kids,” says Executive Director Terri Allison, who co-wrote the initial proposal to fund a childcare center for homeless children when she worked for the Community Action Commission. The children thrived and the program grew, incorporating in 1991 and moving to First Congregational Church, then to a dedicated center in 1999.
As the program matured, so did its goals. “In the beginning, the group was very focused on providing a safe space for kids,” says board president Jon Clark. “Now we’re looking in a more focused way at the children and their families and what they need. … In particular because of the living situations these children are in, it really is on Storyteller to provide educational experiences, nutrition and all those things that will help them grow.”
Most families are referred through word-of-mouth or from other agencies such as Transition House, Domestic Violence Solutions, St. Vincent’s, Department of Social Services and Child Protective Services.
“A teacher sits down with every family for at least an hour … to establish a level of trust with them and also to figure how we can help,” Allison says. In addition to early childcare and education services, offerings include on-site counseling, family services and case management; parent support groups and education workshops; mental health and disability services; health, vision and dental screenings and nutrition services.
“The teacher helps set goals with the parents and we monitor them on a monthly basis,” Allison says. “We know that the best way to affect change is through the whole family, so parents to have the skills that they need, as well as the children.”
“Parents who leave their children with us are expressing tremendous trust in the people that work at Storyteller,” says Clark. “Once that trusting relationship is developed, there is so much that we can do to help them deal with their family issues and parenting issues. That was a real eye-opener when we realized that the relationship between the organization and the families and the trust that developed was such a huge asset.”
Studies of graduates and their families show a marked improvement in their social and economic status and Storyteller is working with UCSB to research the longer-term impact of its programs. “What we’re trying to do is to make meaningful changes in the lives of children and their families that are going to play out over time,” says Clark.
“There is so much scientific evidence about the huge differences that quality preschool education can make in later years,” says Allison. Experts agree that investment in high quality education for young children has substantial economic payoffs–for every $1 invested, $3 to $16 is returned from decreased jail time and increased physical and mental health.
One of the biggest challenges for Storyteller is trying to focus on the depth of services to individual families and still offer a breadth of services to the community. The waiting list for children continues to grow. Allison cites research that there is only one licensed childcare space for every three eligible children in Santa Barbara County–regardless of a family’s ability to pay.
Still, Storyteller is doing its best to help more children. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the organization opened a second facility, thanks in large part to the generosity of the Orfalea Foundation, who bought the building and is leasing it back to Storyteller rent-free for ten years, enabling Storyteller to mount a $3.2 million capital campaign for the expansion.
Last spring Storyteller was able to increase capacity from 29 to 50 children in the two preschools. By September of 2009 they expect to have 72 children enrolled.
“It’s really amazing to think of how far we’ve come,” says board member J.P. Sharp, a volunteer since 1994. “It was a real grassroots organization of helping children and helping parents and really teaching them how to parent. This is still a wonderful place to visit and volunteer.”