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From Yoncalla to Salem: Parent Voices Drive Advocacy

Parents meet with Governor Kate Brown. Governor Brown meets with parents from Yoncalla Early Works.

“After that, I couldn’t wait to do more.”

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During the 2017 session of the Oregon legislature, Sara Ruiz-Weight traveled to Salem three times to testify about the value of preschool and early education. She joined staff and board members from Children’s Institute to meet with legislators and Governor Kate Brown, sharing her experiences as a mother of five living in the city of Drain (pop. 1,164) in North Douglas County.

Sara’s youngest child attended preschool last year at Yoncalla Elementary School, a 10-minute drive from Drain. Yoncalla Elementary School is both an Early Works site and a Preschool Promise site. Early Works is a partnership between The Ford Family Foundation, Children’s Institute, and the Yoncalla School District that focuses on early learning, health, and family engagement. Preschool Promise is Oregon’s new state-funded preschool program that launched mixed-delivery classrooms in September 2016.

Sara says her daughter felt comfortable from day one. She saw her daughter begin to grow immediately and start looking at the world differently. “She learned how to better handle her emotions and break down situations so she could understand what people around her are doing,” Sara says.

Sara’s family has faced plenty of struggles over the years. Both Sara and her husband work at a mill in Drain. “It’s hard labor,” she says. “It’s not for the weak. It takes a physical and mental toll on you.”

With Sara working the graveyard shift and her husband working swing shift, one of them is always home. Still, she feels like her kids have had to grow up too fast. With her youngest, Sara worried she would struggle in preschool, interacting with new teachers and staff in a new environment. “But she wasn’t struggling, thanks to the staff at the school. I really feel like Early Works is like family.”

Her daughter’s positive experience with preschool and Early Works inspired Sara to start volunteering at the school. She became a parent liaison and joined the school’s leadership team. She began attending and organizing parent meetings and reached out to other parents to participate.

Sara also introduced herself to elementary school teachers and noted their understanding of the value of early learning. “They can see the difference in their students. Kids are excelling, reading levels are higher.”

The school year was transformational for Sara and her family. With her youngest daughter thriving and headed toward kindergarten, Sara invited her 13-year-old daughter to provide child care during the parent meetings. Now, Sara says, her teenager is inspired to learn more about early education. “She can see a career path, and her activity at Yoncalla Elementary has inspired more kids from the nearby high school to volunteer as well.”

During the 2017 legislative session, Sara volunteered to travel to Salem to meet with Governor Brown about the impact of Preschool Promise on her life. She made it clear to the governor that preschool for her child would not have been possible without Preschool Promise. She also wanted Governor Brown to know that her involvement in the school and her participation in parenting classes not only served her, but her entire family.

“It was a surreal experience,” Sara says. “Governor Brown put her hand on my hand and we talked about the importance of early education and how stopping the program would be detrimental, especially to economically challenged communities.”

In the past year, Sara has heard about many children and families who need more supports. She’s also learned how early education can have a lasting impact on children, teaching them skills that last throughout school and beyond.

“When you are a kid you are a sponge,” she says. “Preschool helps kids learn to think outside the box, to think more creatively. It’s the best time to give that to them.”

After meeting Governor Brown, Sara says she would be happy to go back to Salem. “After that, I couldn’t wait to do more.”

Governor Brown has since reiterated her support for early learning and has said her goal is progress toward universal preschool. Recently, Brown has called for the development of a new Statewide Early Learning Plan that supports an integrated early learning system for all Oregon communities.

“I want to keep working with Early Works, with the teachers, staff, and parents,” Sara says. “And I want to keep working with kids. I want to see the children be amazing.”

 

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