Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Storyteller celebrates opening of second center


Several years ago, with their State Street center close to bursting at the seams and a waiting list growing painfully long, leaders at the Storyteller Children’s Center began looking for a second location to call home.
Early last year, they came across a private preschool for sale on De la Vina Street. Complete with Legos, toys and board games, it seemed the perfect place to offer their tuition-free preschool program for at-risk and homeless children.
And Wednesday, even as local dignitaries and donors gathered to officially celebrate the opening of Storyteller’s second center at 2121 De la Vina St., the laughter of children could be heard from the back rooms of the quaint Craftsman home.

“It really cements our commitment to serving more families,” said Terri Allison, executive director of Storyteller. “…The other center was maxed. We didn’t have any more space for families on our waiting list.”
As visitors took brief tours of the home, a group of kids gathered in a playroom to listen to a story while others painted away in the learning center. After they trooped out to the front steps to watch Mayor Marty Blum snip a yellow ribbon and marvel at her oversized scissors, the youngsters headed off to the playground and covered deck behind the home, romping around a fort and bouncing on a small trampoline.
“Because our kids are coming from shelters and substandard housing, to come into a home like this, sometimes it’s the first real home they know,” Allison said.
Founded in 1988, the organization offers early childhood education to kids between 18 months and five years of age, along with support services for their families. Children accepted to the program come from extremely low-income households — approximately $20,000 or less annually for a family of four.
As the kids enjoy a variety of activities during the day — along with nutritious meals — their parents must be working, attending school, or actively pursuing employment. The center also offers onsite counseling, parenting classes and referrals.
Storyteller is currently the only local agency specifically focused on preschool education for children up to 5 years old. With two locations, it will be able to serve 1,000 children and families during the next 10 years.
But that is only beginning to address the need.
There are more than 100 families currently on the waiting list, said Julia Rodgers, a Storyteller board member, including one family living in an RV in Isla Vista.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
Scientists have highlighted the importance of preschool, Allison said, using cost-benefit studies to show that every dollar spent on early childhood education pays off at least three-fold later in life.
“Families come to me that need childcare that day,” she said. “It just kills me that we have to put them on the waiting list.”
Although Storyteller is partially supported by federal Head Start funds, the remaining costs are covered by private donations. And even though the organization is effectively doubling its carrying capacity with the new center, no new federal funds are available, meaning the De la Vina Street location must be supported completely by donations.
A generous offer from the Orfalea Fund, a longtime supporter of Storyteller, to purchase the home and lease it back rent-free for 10 years helped ease the strain on resources.
“They are really making a huge difference,” Allison said.
A fundraising campaign during the past six months to raise $3.2 million — enough to keep the new center operating for a decade — has already seen widespread success with benefits and online donations through its website,
“We are almost halfway to our goal right now,” said Yvette Giller, chair of the campaign.
In addition to minor capital improvements to the new center, the funds will support Storyteller’s scholarship fund and program expenses.

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