The families Mano a Mano Family Resource Center serves in Lake County have big dreams for their children’s futures, and they understand that education is the key to achieving them. In order to enter kindergarten, children must possess school readiness prerequisites such as being able to identify colors or count to 20—skills often learned in preschool. However, affording a preschool education can be a barrier for many families.
“The requirements to enter kindergarten can be challenging,” said Astrid Martinez, development director for the Round Lake-based organization.
To address these barriers, Mano a Mano offers a Kindergarten Readiness Initiative that gives children between the ages of three to five the fundamental knowledge they’ll need to be successful. Two hundred families, nearly all of them Spanish-speaking immigrants, take part in the weekly one-hour sessions, presented for three weeks either virtually or in person. While it is centered around the children, the program also provides resources to parents so they can continue the learning experience at home.
“They don’t see themselves as being that first teacher in their children’s lives, so we give them the tools,” Martinez said.
The program materials offer guidance and suggestions on how to utilize home environments to teach early childhood concepts. For example, parents can make a point of noting that a particular car is red or count aloud the birds their children see sitting outside the kitchen window. The program also encourages parents to read to their children. Martinez notes that this type of learning allows everybody to engage more comfortably.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many organizations struggled with transitioning to a virtual setting. However, according to Mano a Mano Executive Director Dulce Ortiz, virtual meetings were actually a benefit to program participants because finding reliable transportation is often a struggle for them.
“We have seen participation (via Zoom) from parts of the county we weren’t getting before the pandemic,” she said.
Mano a Mano received grant support from Nuestro Futuro, an affinity fund housed at The Chicago Community Trust, alongside a matching grant from the Hispanic Federation to increase capacity for its Kindergarten Readiness Initiative. Funding also enhanced the organization’s ability to support families’ mental health needs and educate them about the value of seeking services for such common conditions as depression and anxiety. As Ortiz notes, there is often a stigma in the Latinx community around seeking help for mental health-related issues.
“We are normalizing the idea that when any of us are struggling, we can allow ourselves to see a therapist,” she said.
Because of Nuestro Futuro’s reputation in Latinx philanthropy and its robust vetting for its grant making, grant recipients often attract subsequent grant dollars from other funders, according to Ortiz. Funding support from NF helped Mano a Mano secure a grant from Women United, a philanthropy affiliated with United Way of Lake County, to create six additional hours of nutrition-education curriculum to be presented in tandem with the Kindergarten Readiness Initiative. All of this is critical to ensuring the families Mano a Mano work with are set up for success.
“We don’t often see people rejecting the work we do.” Martinez said. “Parents and children alike may not be sure what to expect at first, but they tend to leave wanting more.”