Markinza Gill stood before a group of 2-year-olds recently at the downtown YWCA and asked a simple question: “What do we do before we eat?”
“Wash your hands,” a small voice responded, rubbing her hands together as if she were actually washing them.
“That’s right. I want you all to make your plate of food for lunch,” said Gill, as she led the children to get their food.
One-by-one, they got chicken fingers, fresh fruit, a roll, and salad with dressing—which each child poured without spilling a drop. No one made a mess while eating. When they were finished, the kids even made sure they cleaned their faces with napkins.
“It wasn’t always this easy,” Gill said. “It took us a year to get them to this point, … but they are doing great now.”
Developmental goals for children at the downtown YWCA include more than just reciting the alphabet. Children are taught how to play along with each other and communicate their needs. Independence is part of the curriculum, too.
“When they are here, they are learning,” said YMCA Senior Director of Child Development Services Jamekia Bies. “We emphasize that they get here on time, that they don’t come in late, because they might miss something … that developmental piece that they need.”
Being independent includes brushing their teeth, cleaning up after themselves, and sharing with others. Many of the children in the classes are from local shelters in Birmingham or low-income families.
“A lot of times, their home environment can be a little haywire, so we offer some stability when it comes to things they would need to know in their own homes,” Gill said.
Gill, who has worked at the YWCA for two years, said children learn through repetition until they master what’s being taught.
“We set the standards high, and the expectations are high as they move up,” she said.
The YWCA provides child care and education for preschoolers and after-school care for school-age children, in addition to a broad range of programs.
K.I.D.S. (Kids in Distress) Korner is for children who live in the local downtown shelters.
“[Children in this program have] parents who have been affected by domestic violence, who have been affected by homelessness and live in shelters around the area,” Bies said.
Calico Corner is for low-income families with children. The family may pay a prorated fee, depending on income.
“Parents are able to bring their children somewhere where they feel safe,” Bies said. “Many of our parents are trying to get back on their feet.”
Child-care needs also are addressed.
“A lot of families that aren’t necessarily homeless, but … they’re barely making it,” Bies said. “When you include the cost of child care, which could be $150 to $200 a week for one child, that is a hardship on the family.”
Education at the YWCA also includes giving children a sense of ownership, said Cornelius McSwain, who teaches 3-year-olds. The children have “cuddle blankets,” donated handmade quilts.
“They have the chance to say, ‘This is mine.’ … You don’t even have to remember which blanket is theirs—they do,” Mc Swain said.
The staff’s goal is to provide a sense of normalcy for the children.
“We provide meals for them, hot meals,” Bies said. “The parents can go to work or job hunt and know that their child is taken care of, so the parents and children don’t have that mental stress.”
Some women just need a helping hand, she added: “When you build a woman up, it not only affects her but also affects her children.”
The YWCA tries to meet as many needs as possible for the family.
“We provide comfort to kids who are in distress, kids who wonder where their next meal will come from, kids who don’t have a bed like you and I do, kids who may not even have a blanket,” Bies said. “It’s important that we meet not only one need for the family, but all the needs,” which can include clothing, diapers, milk, and any other necessities.
While all those items are important, Bies has noticed that the children sometimes just want to talk.
“Often, they will greet you at the door and say, ‘Come, sit down. Let’s talk.’ They want to talk to you,” she said. “That’s what’s so special about this age. The children just want to be loved. They want to feel that affection.”