Putting the Needs of Children and Families First in Clarkston

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Clarkston Mayor Beverly Burks reads a story during the 2022 Clarkston Tell Me a Story Festival. Photo: Virginia Reese Photography.

By Sara Baxter

Even before the pandemic, Roberta Malavenda was hearing about the challenges Clarkston families were having in finding quality childcare and early learning opportunities for their children. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation.

Malavenda is the executive director of CDF Action – a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 and based in Clarkston that is committed to ensuring that early learning policies, programs and opportunities are equitable and result in good learning environments for children and their families.

“It’s a small, flexible organization with the vision of making Clarkston a vibrant, diverse community where all voices are heard in decision making and residents work together to transform education,” Malavenda explains. “We listen first listen to understand ideas, then we turn the ideas and issues into action based on best practices.”

In 2019, CDF Action partnered with the Clarkston City Council to create the Clarkston Early Learning Task Force to engage the community in creating ways to improve early childhood learning. The Task Force is comprised of about 20 people from all backgrounds, including city council members, childcare center directors and experts, parents and community members.

2021 Clarkston Tell Me a Story Festival. At left, Clarkston Vice Mayor Awet Eyasu and his daughter listen to a speaker, and at right, a child looks over the available books. Photos: Virginia Reese Photography.

“It’s all about collaboration,” says Clarkston Mayor Beverly Burks. “We found that when we, as elected officials, collaborate with the community, nonprofits and schools, that’s how you can make a difference. You truly have to be a champion in the seat where you make policy.”

One of the first things the Task Force took on was changing zoning laws to enable home-based childcare centers to be an approved use of a home or apartment.

“When we looked at the data, we saw that there was only one family childcare home in Clarkston, yet we learned that families preferred in-home care,” Malavenda says. “We realized that zoning made that extremely difficult in homes and apartments.”

Aside from child care, the new zoning was written to also include READY School (a free early learning and engagement program), tutoring and after school care as allowable uses of homes and apartments, within state and local guidelines and requirements.

The Task Force also helped the city utilize American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to provide grants to childcare centers located within the Clarkston City limits to help reduce the financial impact of COVID-19 on their businesses. The funds helped pay for cleaning supplies, masks and sanitizer, as well as scholarships to families who were unable to pay for childcare during the pandemic.

“Because childcare centers were able to receive some of the ARPA federal funding, none of them had to close – or if they did it was just for a short period of time,” says Malavenda. “So Clarkston did not lose any childcare centers.”

To help provide quality childcare professionals, the city – along with the help of CDF Action Easter Seals Head Start, Georgia Piedmont Technical College and The United Way – created a child development associate (CDA) training program to recruit, train and credential refugee women to be early learning teachers.

“They had the skills and the desire,” says Malavenda, “but they didn’t have the language or the credentials to be teachers.” After completing their training (conducted via Zoom during the pandemic), the women will be hired by Easter Seals North Georgia’s Head Start program and other child development and early learning programs, including the READY School. The women are now preparing for their observation and exams. This program provides employment opportunities for the women and teachers for the childcare centers, which makes it possible for more families to have childcare. And that helps everyone.

“Early childhood learning lays the foundation for the future,” says Clarkston City Council member and Vice Mayor Awet Eyasu. “The more children succeed in the future, the better it is for our community. And the city is really committed to making sure that we have good early learning environment in our city.”

2022 Clarkston Tell Me a Story Festival. Photo: Virginia Reese Photography.

Promoting Literacy, Togetherness and Fun

Support for families and children goes beyond childcare centers. In 2014, CDF partnered with the city to create “Clarkston Tell Me a Story! Children’s Language and Literacy Festival,” with the goal of promoting literacy, sharing early learning and childcare resources and providing a venue for families to meet and engage with one another. Storytellers read stories in a variety of languages and families can sample international food and enjoy other activities.

“This is a way to bring families together and also spotlight the different cultures that our residents come from,” says Eyasu. “It is also a way to integrate early learning into an event.”

Early learning is also incorporated into Clarkston’s newly-created “Story Walk.” Located in the city’s Friendship Forest Wildlife Sanctuary – which has just been renovated – pages of stories posted on boards are spaced out along a trail so families can walk, read and have discussions about what they’ve read. Based on community feedback, the Task Force developed the idea and identified 12 books to be featured. The city is providing the story boards while the Rotary Club of Stone Mountain is supplying 15 copies of each book.

“The key to all of this is that we are listening to the people we are serving,” says Burks. “We want to have an understanding of what they need so they feel that they are heard. Again, it’s collaboration – everyone is coming together to put families first. And all of this helps the city of Clarkston.”

Sara Baxter is a freelance writer based in Decatur, GA. She specializes in telling stories for nonprofit organizations.

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