When real estate investor Kenny Slaught spotted an ad in the newspaper 30 years ago for volunteers to help move play equipment in and out of a parking lot for homeless kids, he couldn’t believe there were children in Santa Barbara without a home. Upon arriving at the homeless shelter on Ortega Street, he saw little kids running around the parking lot, and he was struck. Slaught immediately began helping out, kicking off a long relationship with what soon became known as Storyteller Children’s Center.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Storyteller provides free therapeutic preschool and support services for disadvantaged children and their families. As one of Storyteller’s original founders, Slaught has seen the center grow from a small play space to a bustling, accredited preschool in a two-story house. Storyteller currently operates out of two sites in Santa Barbara and serves 63 children. “It was really exciting to be able to have a home environment for these kids who don’t know what a home is,” Slaught said.
According to Executive Director Donna Fisher, the children who come to Storyteller often haven’t met their developmental milestones because of unstable housing or past trauma. “If our children didn’t have Storyteller, they would probably end up going to kindergarten and being expelled because of their behavior,” Fisher said. “Because of the trauma they’ve had, they don’t know how to process their emotions, so it can come out in very aggressive ways.”
To address this issue, Storyteller’s teachers work side by side with mental-health consultants and therapists to teach children how to soothe themselves whenever they start to feel anxious. Storyteller helps parents and guardians, too. “We’re like dropping a pebble into a pond,” Fisher explained. “There are multilayers of circles. It’s not just about the child; it’s about the family and the community.”
Teresa Flores, a preschool teacher who has been with Storyteller for 24 years, said one of the biggest blessings she receives is seeing her former students out in the community. “It’s an awesome, endearing, wonderful experience to see them doing well,” she said.
On celebrating 30 years, Fisher said Storyteller’s team is very proud of their mission but is still trying to break the cycle of poverty in Santa Barbara. “Often people think of Santa Barbara and they think of great wealth, but one in four children here lives under poverty levels,” she said. “So we know the work we do is very important, and we’ll be here as long as we’re needed.”