At First Place Kids Early Childhood program in south Eugene, Eileen Chanti works with young children who don’t have homes. Chanti, the program’s director, says that the unhoused children of Lane County are “the most vulnerable population in our community.”
Due to a recent loss in funding, the First Place Kids Early Childhood program is losing one of its two staff members this week, reducing resources for unhoused families who often can’t meet the mandatory enrollment requirements of other early childhood programs.
Maria Sanchez, a bilingual teacher who worked part time for the First Place program, says she is “really sad because now there isn’t going to be a person taking care of the Latino families.”
A Spanish speaker, Sanchez says she served as a resource for houseless Latino parents and children, widening the program’s reach and attracting more families to use the services available at First Place Family Center.
“Families spread the word that we have someone who speaks Spanish, and it made people more eager to talk to me and tell me more about what issues they’re having,” she says.
Chanti, a Waldorf-trained teacher who has worked with at-risk children for six years, says she’s struggled to maintain funding for the program, which offers drop-in classes three times a week for kids ages 6 and under, accommodating the hurdles that unhoused parents face by not requiring mandatory enrollment as many other programs do.
“These are families that have difficulty with transportation, and they don’t know where they’re sleeping the next night,” Chanti says. “Programs that require enrollment do not work for them. So we are explicitly a drop-in program, and we allow families to come as needed, with no requirement other than being a family that’s using the First Place Family Center.”
The First Place program emphasizes the importance of play and serves around 200 children a year, with lunches supported by FOOD for Lane County. Chanti also offers referrals, screening children to see if they are eligible for other services across Lane County, including Early Childhood CARES, an early intervention service for young children.
Chanti says that a Social Innovation Fund grant from United Way of Lane County paid for Sanchez’ salary, but when that grant ended, the program could no longer support two staff members. Chanti applied for several grants over the summer, she says, but the program was turned down because it didn’t have enough money to qualify.
“Our program budget is $32,000 a year,” she says. “If we had more, we would be able to hire back another teacher, but our ultimate goal is to be open five days a week. We’d like to be here for families always.”
Chanti says St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County will support the program until June of next year, but she needs to find new funding to continue past that date.
To help fund the First Place Kids Early Childhood program, Chanti says monetary donations can be made through St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County’s website. The program also accepts donations of toys and gift cards for fresh fruits and vegetables.