Everyone has a story. At birth, many stories begin with a promise for a bright and happy future. But what if you are born into challenging circumstances? What if you are immediately plunged into a world of poverty, homelessness, and trauma? As of 2018, 21.2% of people in Santa Barbara County are living below the poverty line, a number that may have grown in the wake of the pandemic. In addition, according to a 2019-2020 study by the Santa Barbara Grand Jury, one in eight children in Santa Barbara County are considered homeless, which is one of the highest rates in the state of California.
Thirty-three years ago, members of the Santa Barbara community came together to form Storyteller Children’s Center. This organization was founded to ensure all families, no matter their economic status or life circumstances, have access to the resources they need to build a healthy and happy future for their children.
Today, Storyteller has two centers that provide high-quality early childhood education, nutritious meals, behavioral health services, and a safe space for an estimated 85 children per year, ranging in age from 18 months to 5 years old.
“Storyteller values compassion, empathy, respect and integrity.” says Santa Barbara native, Susan Cass, Storytellers Children’s Center Executive Director who stepped into her role in August of 2020. “By building trust and forming partnerships with our families, we are preparing our children socially and emotionally to not only successfully enter kindergarten, but also to thrive in their community for decades to come despite their early life challenges and circumstances.”
Of the families Storyteller currently serves, 70% are single parents, 46% are experiencing homelessness or living in overcrowded housing, and 17% of children enroll with a developmental delay or a disability.
Cass is truly passionate about the work of Storyteller and honors the founders by ensuring the programs are collaborative and community centered. She notes, “Storyteller is a year-round therapeutic preschool program serving Santa Barbara County’s most vulnerable children and families. In our programs, we collaborate with CALM, Casa Pacifica, Communify, Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, Wilderness Youth Project, Transition House, and many others – collaboration is key to effecting positive change and community dollars are critical in driving this collective effort.”
Supporting the Community During COVID-19
When COVID-19 hit in the spring of last year, Storyteller was forced to close its doors from March – July 2020. Fortunately, they were able to retain all of their teachers and staff and continue to stay connected with families through phone calls and virtual visits. In mid-July 2020, the need to reopen was far too great, and the Storyteller team worked tirelessly to safely return to in-person services following all COVID-19 guidelines. Storyteller opened its doors on July 13th to full enrollment, a decision based on the fact that the families served needed to return to work and affordable child care was critical to doing so.
Two weeks later, in August 2020, Cass joined Storyteller as their new Executive Director. Immediately she noticed that due to the COVID-19 protocols, much of the teachers’ time was being spent cleaning and disinfecting their classrooms. She reached out to the Santa Barbara Foundation and applied for a COVID-19 Response Grant, where she received funding for custodial staff at each site so the teachers could focus on the needs of their students and no longer take on the physical stress of this additional work. Cass, being highly community focused, had heard about parents from the Santa Barbara School of Squash left unemployed due to the pandemic shutdowns. After sharing the available positions with SBSOS, Storyteller was able to provide work for one such parent.
“Working at Storyteller Children’s Center has helped my family financially and it has also made me feel good about giving back to my community,” says Blanca Hernandez, who was hired to provide custodial support through SBF’s COVID-19 Response Grant. “Just knowing that I’m helping these children out by making sure their classrooms and playgrounds are clean and sanitized for them to use every day, makes my heart full of joy!”
Beyond Early Childhood Education
Quality early childhood education can make an immense impact on a child’s life. Children in such programs have stronger language skills, are more prepared to start school, and have greater social and emotional development. Storyteller is providing these vital resources, at low and no cost, to children that otherwise would go without.
“What I love about my work as a teacher is that I get to be a Brain Architect,” says “Teacher Gene” Genezaret Cardoso. “In the first 3 years of life 50% of the brain is already developed, and by 5 years old our brains are 90% developed. As a teacher, my aim is to support our children physically, creatively, socially, and emotionally to give them a foundation to thrive as they move forward in life.”
Beyond providing quality early childhood education services, Storyteller is a place families can turn to for resources, community, and connections.
“Earlier this year, a mother of one of our children was in the hospital due to COVID-19 and called Storyteller concerned about being able to pay her month’s rent,” Cass shared. “Immediately, our staff reached out to Mi Vida Mi Voz and they were able to help her cover the expense. The mother was so relieved, and we were happy to have been able to help. These are the types of stressors we want to support our parents in alleviating before they lead to additional challenges for the family as a whole.”
To support the need to better serve families and enhance Storyteller’s wrap-around support service model, Cass plans to introduce a family advocate position this year. She hopes this will allow teachers to focus on their children’s development, while the family advocate will be devoted to building relationships with and supporting the needs of the parents and guardians.
So many children have been impacted by Storyteller and have gone on to become thriving community members despite the challenges they faced in their formative years. Cass notes that many of the children and families stay in touch with their former teachers and even reach out for support or resources when a need arises. It is a true testament to the trust and relationships built between the staff and families during their time together.
We are fortunate to have organizations like Storyteller Children’s Center in our community. By providing a safe, nurturing environment for our most vulnerable children to grow and learn, we can help transform their early obstacles into great opportunities for a meaningful and fulfilling life.
To learn more about Storyteller Children’s Center, please visit storytellercenter.org.
Written by Jordan Killebrew & Kara Shoemaker