El Hogar del Niño (“the Home of the Child”) has been serving Latinx families on Chicago’s Southwest Side for 50 years. The organization provides a range of family services and early childhood education programs, helping more than 300 children annually.
“We serve a high number of children with diverse abilities,” said Maria Heidcamp, El Hogar’s program director.
El Hogar offers education programs for three different age groups: six weeks to two years old, three to five years old, and five to 12 years old. These programs cater to the developmental needs of each age group. They are also important to working families who rely on El Hogar as their primary source of childcare.
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the region, it put the organization at a crossroads in terms of how to best serve these families.
As many organizations scrambled to adopt to virtual platforms in order to reach their clients, El Hogar did not. Instead, the organization closed for a few months in the early days of the pandemic, shifting focus to provide assistance with rent, utilities, and basic household supplies to dozens of families. In June 2020, El Hogar slowly resumed in-person operations with COVID-related safety policies in place.
While in-person learning and face-to-face services were beneficial, the pandemic also proved to be a stressful time for families and even staff, according to Managing Director Rosaura Arellano. To address this, El Hogar brought on a full-time licensed professional counselor and an additional consultant for mental health support. This was made possible by a pair of grants from Nuestro Futuro, an affinity fund housed at The Chicago Community Trust that focuses its grant making on early childhood education, immigration, and mental health issues in the Latinx community.
The full-time counselor and the consultant both work with children and their families to identify who could benefit from different types of counseling interventions. In addition, the consultant sets one day a week aside for meeting with staff members individually, at their request, and connects them with long-term services if needed. Ongoing education and screenings are available to all.
Some parents are hesitant about having their children assessed for special needs or behavior difficulties, Heidkamp says. Trust is a key element in their deciding to engage family services they may be unfamiliar with.
Preschool is an especially critical period for children to meet key developmental milestones. In programming geared for preschoolers, each family is assigned a support worker to help them connect with the services they need. The team then develops a plan for each child at the beginning of the year and reviews it monthly.
And, because the early childhood program prepares children for kindergarten, social emotional learning — learning to regulate behavior, make decisions, and interact well with others — is an important element, Heidkamp says. If a child exhibits challenging behaviors, the licensed counselor works with parents and the team to address them. The counselor’s presence has also been beneficial in helping parents become more comfortable discussing their children’s mental health needs.
“We believe in continuity,” says Arellano, noting that seeing the same teachers and staff members makes children feel more secure. She also underscores that’s why the organization is also protective of its employees’ well-being.
Some teachers and staffers come from the community. Others have started as a parent or a student and sometimes have gone on to get advanced degrees in early childhood education, according to Arellano.
“That to me is a perfect example of how El Hogar helps families succeed,” she said.
Arellano also attributes the organization’s success to the support it receives from funders like Nuestro Futuro.
“Without philanthropic help, we would not be able to provide the services we do,” she said.