Many members of the Valle Verde Rotary in Green Valley had never visited the border town of Arivaca until fellow Rotary member Chad Densen told them about the great need at the Arivaca Early Learning Center in his small town. This was the only child care and preschool program within a 30 mile radius.
For anyone who’s driven south of Tucson on Interstate 19, the most they likely know about Arivaca is the freeway exit sign bearing its name. If you did happen to exit and head west for about 25 miles you’d arrive in the remote town of Arivaca, which is about 11 miles north of the Mexican border.
The Valle Verde Rotary members recognized the need for families and young children with limited access to services and resources and wanted to help. They began by learning about the importance of early childhood education, including the critical first five years when 90 percent of a child’s brain develops from the First Things First Pima South Regional Director.
Then Preschool director Nathalie Dresang was invited to tell the group about her center’s biggest needs. Dresang invited them to visit the center, which participates in the FTF Quality First program, which partners with child care and preschool providers to improve the quality of early learning across Arizona. Quality First funds quality improvements that research proves help children thrive, such as training for teachers to expand their skills and to help create learning environments that nurture the emotional, social and academic development of every child.
Dresang led them through four different classrooms. One had a kitchen sink and tables for children to imagine play. Two boys were wearing a fireman and policeman costume, one girl was playing with blocks.
“After hearing about the needs at the Early Learning Center, Valle Verde President Jim Rusk decided to make the Arivaca Early Learning Center one of our service projects for the year,” said Rotary member Virginia Juettner. “Members were encouraged to volunteer and to donate to tuition scholarships for the children.”
After the tour, the Rotary made a commitment to raise money for a shade structure that would allow the kids to play outside more often without the Arizona sun beating down on them. The Valle Verde Foundation awarded a grant to the center for a shade structure for the playground. The club paid 50 percent and Rotary District 5500 Foundation paid 50 percent of the $6,000 price tag. Rotary member Andi Grantham polled the group, and they wanted to do more.
By spring 2016, the Rotary had received a $2,000 matching grant from the Rotary District 5500 Foundation to fund books and literacy activities. The members started volunteering at the center. “With our volunteers we formed a committee and ordered many books for the Early Learning Center,” Juettner said. “Volunteers read to children and the books were incorporated in the curriculum. For example, we bought chicken books to enhance their baby chick hatching unit.” The Rotary volunteers continue to work with the young kids on a weekly basis around two to three times a week. The center’s library is now filled with books bought through the grant.
“There’s a chair for adults to read to the children,” Grantham said. “The floor is carpeted so the kids can gather around you. A bookcase was included with the grant money to keep the books at eye level and facing forward.” Juettner, a retired educator, helped others in the club become aware of the importance of early literacy to young children.
“With Virginia’s help and others in our club, we became aware that early childhood education is vitally important,” Grantham said. “I don’t think we’ve done a project quite like this before.” It’s a partnership where everyone feels they benefit. The Rotarians are able to volunteer and feel connected to a community in their region and the young kids benefit from more quality adult interactions. “I think when they go to kindergarten, they are more than ready,” Grantham said. “They can recognize words. They know their letters. They’re ready for kindergarten.”
The partnership between FTF and Rotary continues to grow as FTF sponsored the southern Arizona Rotary district’s annual conference this fall in order to help bring in an expert on early literacy to speak. The hope is that even more Rotary clubs connect with local early childhood programs in their communities.