Avanza – Moving Forward

It’s 2:00PM on a beautiful warm day at Zeiger Elementary in South Hill, Puyallup. You can hear happy voices on the playground. If you listen closely you will hear little voices speaking Spanish. Martha Santoyo, their teacher, introduces me as Mr. Peter. I am greeted with “Hola Señor Pedro.” This is Avanza, one of two bilingual Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) classrooms operated by Pierce County Human Services. Avanza means moving forward in Spanish.

As I walk on the playground to engage with the children, a little girl approaches me with a stick of chalk in hand. She begins drawing on the blacktop. I ask her what she is drawing. She draws squares and circles. She stands and grabs my hand. She asks me to draw with her. I make flowers and trees. She smiles. She draws a heart, colors it and says it’s for me. At that moment my heart melts. I ask her to tell me her name. She says, "Itzel," and from that moment we’re BFFs!

We talk and joke. I ask her to teach me some Spanish. How do you say tree in Spanish, I ask? She says, “Árbol.” I repeat back. How do you say girl? She says, “Niña.” Now others are hearing our Spanish lesson and chime in. A boy demands that I ask him a word. I say chicken (laughter). He says, “Pollo.” I respond with El Pollo Loco (pronounced L Po-yo Lo-co – referring to The Crazy Chicken, a fast food grilled chicken restaurant in California). Each and every kiddo in hearing distance laughs out loud! I turn red. I thought I said something wrong. It dawned on me there are no El Pollo Loco restaurants in Washington.

I am saved by the bell! Students line up like little soldiers. Their teachers, Martha Santoyo and Margarita Little, lead them into a portable classroom on the school grounds. Itzel breaks ranks and gently takes my hand to make sure I get to the right place. When I enter the space, I see a well-organized classroom. I see life itself filled with happiness. A young man, Axel, approaches me, proudly wearing his new suit jacket. I acknowledge how sharp he looks. He smiles.

I quickly learn my playground word game is not over. Brandon pulls out a box filled with plastic animals and holds up a horse and they say caballo. Next he pulls out a dog and I hear perro. They ask me to repeat in Spanish. Next is a cow (vaca), a goat (cabra), an elephant (elefante) and so on. I repeat in Spanish each animal taken from the box.

The Avanza ECEAP Program provides a window of opportunity for enriching growth and development and reducing vulnerability to social stressors such as poverty so that our children can know who they can become. The children’s progress is measured in seven key categories:

  • Mathematics – The ability to use number concepts and operations, explore and describe spatial relationships and shapes, compare and measure, and knowledge of patterns.
  • Literacy – The ability to demonstrate phonological awareness, knowledge of the alphabet, knowledge of print and its usage, comprehend and respond to books or other texts, and emergent writing skills.
  • Cognitive Development – The ability to demonstrate positive approaches to learning, remember and connect experiences, use classification skills, and use symbols and images to represent something not present.
  • Language – The ability to listen to and understand increasingly complex language, use language to express thoughts and needs, and use appropriate conversational and other communication skills.
  • Physical Development – The ability to demonstrate traveling skills, balancing skills, gross-motor manipulative skills, and fine-motor strength and coordination.
  • Social-Emotional Development – The ability to regulate own emotions and behaviors, establish and sustain positive relationships, and participate cooperatively and constructively in group situations.

The chart below provides proof that Avanza ECEAP works. Please note that sometimes when dual language learners grow developmentally in the area of Language there is more expectation for them to meet and master language objectives, which could result in regression at times.

Before I leave, I ask Margarita and Martha what ECEAP means to them. Margarita said, “It means being able to touch a life and believe we are planting a seed that will positively impact the future.” Martha replied, “To be an ECEAP teacher is to help families and children become self-reliant and successful in life.” These are words spoken from a team with over twenty years of experience.  

I left this experience on a natural high.

On my way back to the office I reflected on my visit. I thought about my family, my job and my community. Mostly, I thought about my experience with three- and four-year-olds. They are open, honest and unfiltered. I left with the strong sentiment that we are their voice. So, some food for thought as you listen to little voices:

  1. Learn from three- and four-year-olds. They can teach you a lesson. Don’t ignore our future!
  2. Go slow, listen and learn. Don’t go too fast. Life will pass you by.
  3. Look for joy; it's always there. You don’t have to go far to find it.
  4. Let little ones lead you. Hold their hands.
  5. Pay more attention. Read a book. Eat dinner together. Stop staring at your phone.
  6. Dream like a happy child. It puts humanity into perspective.
  7. Believe. Consider that everything is possible and you'll make more things happen!
  8. Be happy for no reason. It fills the soul.

For further information regarding the Early Child Education and Assistance Program services we provide, please contact Kristin Kenyon at 253.798.3671. 


Everything They Said They Were Going to Do, They Did!

My life would not have been the same without my grandmother. For 30 years she worked at the Bedford, Massachusetts, Veterans Administration as a Nurse’s Aide in the psychiatric ward. She lived in the same house for 70 years. When my grandmother retired, she had to choose between a government pension and social security. Since she was shy three quarters from getting full social security benefits, she chose the government pension. During that time you had a choice; you didn’t get both.

One day my brother called to tell me that she had been scammed by a roofing and siding company. The contractors had her withdraw money from her limited savings to pay for shoddy work they never finished. My brother and sisters each chipped in to pay for the repairs to complete her home. We’ve all heard similar stories. Unfortunately, the world has not changed. Bad people continue to take advantage of our most vulnerable.

Like my grandmother, let me introduce you to David Shaw, an elderly gentlemen that I spoke to recently. During a duck hunting trip when he was 15 years old, he was shot in the arm and severely injured.  This limited his ability to maintain a productive work life.  His monthly income is around $750. He lives in a trailer and pays $520 a month for his space rent. In 2008 during an ice storm, a tree went through his roof and damaged his roof and chimney. He and his brother tried to fix it as best they could. He used a wood stove with a cracked glass door for heat. He noticed that every time he put wood in the stove, his coughing became worse, and he could not breathe. That’s because David has asthma that he was trying to control through the use of a child’s rescue inhaler.

When Michael Johnson, a Weatherization Technician at Pierce County Human Services, first met David Shaw, he was gasping for breath just sitting and talking. His house and his respiratory condition were both in very poor condition. The initial audit of his home found holes in the interior ceiling, a roof that was actively leaking, and a furnace that was not working at all. The home was very drafty with little to no insulation. There were plumbing issues also. Michael knew this was a problem that could be fixed.

He teamed up with his colleagues in Human Services and leveraged resources from various programs:  Weatherization Plus Health, Minor Home Repairs, Aging and Disability Resources, and the Health Department. This collaboration allowed the team to:

  • fix safety issues including replacing the deck and railings, stairs, roof, and floor;
  • insulate the attic;
  • ventilate the home;
  • install a ductless heat pump with an air purification unit, bath fans and a kitchen range hood; and sealed the air leaks to prevent drafts; and
  • give him a cold plasma air purification unit, a “Green Clean Kit,” walk off mats, bed bug covers for his mattress and pillow, and a hygrometer so he can keep track of indoor humidity levels.

When Michael came to do the final home inspection, David could not sit still! He was constantly on the move with no shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing. He says this work “changed his life.” He said he now sleeps better, is sick much less often, rarely sees his doctor, and spends most of his free time helping others in the community.

David shared with me how thankful he is for everything that he has and receives. He has Medicare and Medicaid and a primary care physician less than two miles away to help him treat his asthma. His heating bills dropped from $350 a month to $130 every 65 days. He can now afford to pay his bills for which he is very grateful. He was afraid that when the team came to look at his roof, they were going to fall through it. He considers it a miracle now that it is fixed. David said, “I am happy, thankful, and blessed. Everything they said they were going to do, they did!”

We all know of similar stories.  They are rarely told.  Helping people like David is what we do! 

For further information regarding the Weatherization services we provide, please contact Teri Allen at 253.798.6115. This is why we do what we do!

Thanks for reading, 

Seventeen Thousand and Two Ounces of Peanut Butter

Last week the Human Services Department completed a peanut butter drive for the Emergency Food Network. The drive started in a simple way: an idea. Ginny Dale, Director of Pierce County Human Resources, mentioned that her department was doing a drive in collaboration with one of the local labor unions. I thought to myself, what a great idea. The timing was great. I had an All Staff meeting shortly after her announcement. I asked myself how could we brand this and have some fun. Operation BYOPB (Bring Your Own Peanut Butter) was born. The Human Services team chuckled and off they went on a one-month peanut butter drive.

People began to get creative. However, when someone offered to make homemade peanut butter cookies for the division who brought in the most peanut butter things went into overdrive. Each division staked out a spot in the hallway. They hung signs that made clear this was their space for their peanut butter. Over the month, I saw jars getting stacked on each other. There was Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan, with peanuts, without peanuts, organic, low salt, non-GMO, etc. My goodness, I thought to myself, how many brands and types of peanut butter could there be. Then, IT hit me!

You see I grew up in a 900 square-foot house with six children. We were poor and I didn’t even know it. Both of my parents worked to raise us. My father worked three jobs and my mother worked in a factory. My father was a janitor. He was an immigrant from Palestine so he took jobs that most immigrants did at that time. One of his jobs was a part-time gig cleaning floors in a local restaurant at night. I knew that job well because I helped scrape the gum off floors to make things right. Man! My dad could shine some floors.

One day, I remember my mother having difficulty going to work. She had cancer. Through chemo she kept on doing the best she could. She worked hard, but the days she could work became less and less. She died young at 42 years of age. But one thing I remember most was my father paying bills. He always calculated bills on the back of an envelope. Though he never said a word, I could tell by the look on his face that the struggle was real: a sick wife, less money and eight mouths to feed. This is when I was introduced to “government peanut butter” and powdered milk.

As I reflect on our peanut butter drive I was brought back in time. I ask myself now, at what point did the government peanut butter not become peanut butter. It was thick like paint; not like the stuff we see in stores today. It was extremely oily and ripped the toughest of breads as you spread it. During the summer we would place the jar in the sun on the kitchen window sill. Yep, it sure got hot and oily but you could mix it to a palatable consistency. Most of all it spread  without ripping the bread. So, for those who ate the government peanut butter you know the struggle was real. We are now better for it.

I bet you are by now wondering how we did on the drive. We collected 795 jars or 17,002 ounces of peanut butter! Even though the Community Services Team won the bragging rights and the homemade cookies, every person in Human Services is doing something to “spread the peanut butter” in real and tangible ways to the citizens of Pierce County. Remember, the struggle will always be real.  But with a good team of creative folks, we can meet the needs of a lot of people. There are more of us that want to help than there are people that need the help! Hats off to the Pierce County Human Services Team!

Thanks for reading my blog and remember to 



Early Childhood Education: A Tool to Break the Cycle of Poverty and Homelessness

A couple of weeks ago I saw a mother duck with her ducklings following in tow.

As I watched them, it reminded me of how small children follow their teachers in classrooms and brought back fond memories of my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Kertin. In my eyes, Mrs. Kertin was the best! I remember reciting the alphabet, sounding out words, reading in a circle on the primary-colored carpet and most of all being chosen to clap the chalk out of the erasers and assisting with catching copies from the mimeograph machine.

Each day 300 low-income, three- and four-year-olds have a similar experience with staff from Human Services in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP).  A family of four would make no more than $26,730 per year. There are seven ECEAP locations and nine programs throughout Pierce County: Orting, Bonney Lake, Buckley, Eatonville, University Place, Sumner and South Hill Puyallup. Each unique site has its own cozy appeal. Every staff member is caring and encouraging. Watching the classroom full of three- and four-year-olds is heartwarming. Like a mother duck, they follow their teacher. In Orting for example, their interaction with teacher Peggy Baublits reminded me of the kindred spirit of Mrs. Kertin.  Peggy has nurtured children at Orting ECEAP for nine years while providing clear expectations that set no limitations on their abilities or potential.

In addition to teachers, all ECEAP sites have Family Support Workers (FSW). They assist families with parenting skills, healthy eating habits, community resources, vision screenings, and more to encourage families to take an active role in their child’s education. Mercedes, Orting’s FSW, identified two children this year with vision concerns and referred them to ophthalmologists. One child was prescribed glasses and the other continues with vision testing.

At each site I visited, I found the same familiar, kind, and nurturing environment where children are encouraged and challenged to be their best each day. Every child should have the joy of a Mrs. Kertin or Mrs. Baublits’ experience, and to carry that memory through their lifetime. 

I conclude with my recent experience at the Bonney Lake ECEAP site. There I had quite the encounter with two little boys which I recount here to give you a sense of the joy being a kid can be.

Me: “Hello” to two boys sitting at a table.
Boy One: Can you help me make Iron Man?
Me: GULP! Sure!
Boy Two: He can’t make Iron Man!
Me: I am going to try.
Boy One: Wow, that is cool as I roll out stick leg #1, then two, then a stick body, and arms.
Boy Two: That’s not Iron man!
Boy One: Yes it is! He just got to make his head better.
Me: As I make the head a bit more square and add eyes, mouth and ears.
Boy One: See!
Boy Two: That is really cool!
Me: Whew, thank you boys for your help!
Boy Two: Can you help me make Spiderman?

As you can see from the picture, even though my play dough making skills were put to the ultimate test building Iron Man, I succeeded.
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Each day children in ECEAP are succeeding in learning new and different ways to be ready and successful in kindergarten. ECEAP is a needed tool to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness. I’m proud to say that Pierce County ECEAP and its wonderful staff do make a difference!


Thanks for reading, gallery