WATERVILLE — Parents of children enrolled in Educare Central Maine say the early childhood education program has made a huge difference in their children’s educational, social and emotional growth.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Maine last year at this time, Educare had to close down for more than two months and parents worried about what that might mean for their children’s development.

Jessica Ricciardelli said the interruption affected her daughter Izzy’s progress with the alphabet.

“Her alphabet was off,” she recalled.

But once Educare opened up again in late May, Izzy, who has attended since she was 9 months old, picked right up where she left off, according to her mother.

“It wasn’t long after she got back to the daily routine that everything came back,” Ricciardelli said.

She and Izzy, now 5, were among several parents and children, Educare officials, and others who turned out Wednesday at Educare on Drummond Avenue in an outdoor ceremony to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Week of the Young Child.

Educare student Emelia Foster, 3, swings with a schoolmate Wednesday at Educare in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Mayor Jay Coelho read aloud a proclamation celebrating the week of April 10-16 and spoke about his own experiences with Educare after moving to Waterville with his family 13 years ago. He recalled how tough it was, caring for his young children and juggling bottles and diapers while trying to grow his business. Being able to enroll his child in Educare a few hours a day helped and allowed his daughter to interact with other children her age and be creative.

“She was always excited when she got home,” Coelho said.

Educare, which has been in Waterville 10 years, is a partnership between Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, Waterville Public Schools, Buffet Early Childhood Fund and the Bill & Joan Alfond Foundation. It operates on the premise that a child’s cognitive, physical, social, emotional and literacy-language development occurs in the first few years of life and must be built on positive interactions with peers and adults. The proclamation Coelho read aloud says such education saves taxpayer dollars, makes working families more economically secure, and prepares children to succeed in school, earn higher wages and lead healthful lives.

Educare has fared well during the pandemic, according to Executive Director Tracye Fortin.

“We have done an incredible job,” she said.

A University of Maine evaluation revealed positive data about how children progressed, according to Fortin.

“The children’s language growth has not taken a hit during the pandemic,” she said. “It really is an indication that the earlier you start, the more they’re retaining their learning.”

Educare student Kolton Champagne, 4, works on a project Wednesday in the engineering center at Educare in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/ Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

More than 200 children from birth to age 5 are enrolled in Educare, which requires heavy involvement by parents and families. Some parents become “parent ambassadors.”

Waterville City Councilor Flavia Oliveira enrolled her son in Educare a few years ago after she moved to Waterville, and she became a parent ambassador, advocating for local, state and federal issues, even traveling to Washington, D.C., to train and learn about interacting with parents.

Parent ambassadors go on to take roles in the community. Isreal Mosley, for instance, serves on the Board of Directors for KVCAP and is chair of the Waterville Democratic City Committee. Both he and Oliveira said their children who attended Educare learned life skills  early and developed strong emotional skills.

“It’s a two-generation approach,” Oliveira said. “It helps the children, it helps the parents and it helps the whole family.”

Mosley agreed, saying the focus must be on both parents and children — not just the child enrolled in Educare.

“It’s the idea that children don’t exist without parents and parents don’t exist without children,” he said.

Brittany Foss, an Educare master teacher, and her son, Gavin, 5 months, were floating among the group Wednesday, chatting with other parents and children. Foss coordinated activities for the weeklong celebration, organizing Music Monday, where children listen to music while doing routines such as washing their hands or brushing their teeth, and Tasty Tuesday, where they learned about healthful food, and so on. As a master teacher, Foss provides coaching for other teachers as they reflect on their practices.

Parents, students and others watch as Waterville Mayor Jay Coelho, left, reads a proclamation Wednesday celebrating the 50th anniversary of Week of the Young Child during a special event at Educare in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

She said that when the pandemic closed Educare last year, staff worried about how they would be able to maintain connections and be there for families. They put their heads together and came up with a plan that worked.

“It was moving,” Foss said. “Everyone was going through an emotional time, and those connections proved to be just vital. We offered lots of resources, not just for child development, but also to help families’ needs.”

Foss recalled, for instance, being able to provide diapers for a family that was struggling. She and Fortin said Educare also strengthened its food pantry during the pandemic and was able to help families that were food insecure.

When they came back at the end of May, safety protocols were in place and the children adapted well, Foss said.

“They are so resilient, and they came back like they had never left,” she said. “It was like coming home — it was like a big family being reunited. We spent so much time building our school family, nothing had changed even though we were apart during that time.”

Ricciardelli, who works at the Maine Bureau of Emergency Medical Services, said Educare staff were very good about communicating with parents during the pandemic. It was a challenging time, working full time and caring for her daughter while Educare was closed, but staff prepared well for the reopening, according to Ricciardelli.

“It felt safe,” she said. “I think they did an excellent job in adapting to the virus. It felt comfortable bringing her here. I’m very thankful.”

The Week of the Young Child is celebrated nationwide as part of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a large nonprofit association representing early childhood education teachers, facility directors, trainers, college educators, families of young children, policy makers and others. Educare is accredited by the association.


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