Managing and teaching in a shelter child center

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Water makes it better.

Water play is great for my very wild Porcupine class. But we can’t afford the water toys that all the slick magazines advertise. There is no way we could get a fancy draining water table either. But we are the preschool that can, and nothing stops the porcupines! We solved the issue fast.

First, we went to McDonald and asked them for some trays that they were getting rid of. Then we went to the Dollar tree and stocked up on plastic animals, plastic beads, marbles and such.We also bought four large basins, about the size that fits in the sink. Then we went through the collection of old toys, measuring cups of different sizes, water bottles and like objects. The bead necklaces were cut, so they were all different lengths,varying from 3 beads to half of the necklace.  (maybe 15-20 beads).

Then the fun begins. We set up four places at the table, each with a tray, a towel and a basin of warm water with that days items in it. The items can be everything from  a water bottle, a cup, a handful of glass rocks, shells, pony and troll dolls, the beads,sponges and plastic animals. Sometimes we add extra treats to the water. We may add soap, that they won’t notice till it starts bubbling as they play. Or it may have tinting from dye, either blue, purple, of pink. We don’t use yellow, because it triggers one of the kids with autism, and green stains too much.


Miss Turtle-Critter wrangler!

Seriously! That’s what seems like I’ve been doing all week. First I spent an hour chasing the rooster from next door. Then, a parent came in with a macaw. Then a dog came in. *sigh*Busy, busy.


Lessons of the day

  1. Miss Turtle’s cell phone doesn’t swim
  2. She will make really strange faces if you take her phone swimming
  3. baby cheetahs purr really loud!!
  4. its a good idea to have a back up cell phone with a plumber on speed dial


Of course :

  • Its down-pouring rain and ALL 312 kids showed up
  • Today ‘s activities have all been cancelled, and the staff are looking at me blankly when I told them to go to plan B. (we always have a plan B and usually a C,D, and E as well.)
  • the kids that aren’t in pj’s are in snow suits
  • The rooster came back
  • so did the possum
  • My office got tossed, and all the important stuff is out of order (to say the least)
  • I can’t walk today, and there are 5 parent meetings scheduled.
  • As soon as I hit the infant room, all the above stopped mattering.
  • of course: (

Sometimes I wonder if:

  • Other preschools have to deal with wandering wildlife
  • why parents put their kids in snowsuits,when our center is just downstairs
  • anyone else has water that looks worse than my 9th grader’s science fair project.
  • can’t find a board,because no one really wants to deal with homeless children and their special issues
  • other centers have 99%  “shocky” kids
  • Keep getting told that I don’t meet standards,but no one wants to let me know which standards I’m supposed to meet! (we are way over the shelter standards of 1 adult to countless unknown children)
  • Manages to face all these challenges and still have great parents, a wonderful staff,and for the most part,happy children.

Who we are,what we do and all other important stuff!

Who we are: The Elk Care Shelter Center( or interchangeable versions of this.) The firstpreschool/infant toddler center/after school operating within the Bay Area shelter system. Our building is a combination of Community living for people with terminal illness and their families and what was meant to be temporary shelter for homeless families and a domestic violence shelter.

What we do: Provide care and preschool  for the children that got caught in the bad economy. We provide preschool ,pre-k,Infant/toddler child care,sick child day care, after school supervision for children up to age 12.

Who we serve: Children who have been in the shelter for 4 weeks or more. The average stay is now . Many have parents who are terminally ill,or are escaping horrible home situations.

Why we started: I was horrified by the situation of the children in the shelter. They were all in a day room the size of a large school gymnasium,with sometimes only 1 adult supervising. One adult is all that is required by shelter rules,even though there are sometimes up to 240 children at a time,many infants and toddlers who are just left sitting in the cribs (or boxes) by themselves. This is the Bay area, not some foreign orphanage. I couldn’t stand the chaos or seeing that many hurting children. So I got together with some of the parents and we started a better system.

  • Safety: We have many more supervising adults now, but not all of them are trained to work with children. (although they are all parents and have some experience) Also we don’t have a great water supply and some lead based paint. Also gangs within the building sometimes fight.
  • Not sure who is in charge of us: no one wants to claim us. We are sort of Housing and urban health,sort of parks and recreation, sort of shelter.
  • Lack of basic materials
  • Lack of funds
  • Many “shocky” children because of family situations
  • Children not ready to learn because basic needs aren’t even close to being met.

Lack of support from either the general community or the ECE community. We really feel like we are functioning in a vacuum. Other ECE groups look down on us and say we’re not really part of their community.(with a few exceptions)

What we have going for us:

  • A staff with heart,willing to give their all
  • Great parents/guardians/families(and even sometimes pets)

Why the Elk: In the Nez Perce culture (and many other Native American cultures as well) the elk is the Animal that represents perseverance, Endurance and inner strength. Those are the qualities we want the children here to have.

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