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Ahern: SXU’s Birth to 3 program aids at-risk kids, families

Kathy Peters (left) Lori Winkler arrange books preparatifor meeting with children St. Xavier UniversityÕs Birth 3 Program.  |

Kathy Peters (left) and Lori Winkler arrange books in preparation for a meeting with children in St. Xavier UniversityÕs Birth to 3 Program. | Patti Ahern/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 24, 2014 6:12AM



Kathy Peters and Lori Winkler helped more than 500 families over the past 10 years, but few probably know of their efforts.

The women run St. Xavier University’s Birth to 3 program in the Mount Greenwood community of Chicago, working out of office space at Mount Greenwood Community Church, 3509 W. 111th St.

As certified Teaching Activities for Learning and Knowledge practitioners, they reach out to provide a nurturing and supportive environment to children under 3 who are determined to be at risk academically and those identified with special needs.

“We’re just starting our sixth year here (at the church),” Peters said. “The grant was originally written in collaboration with Barbara Vick Early Childhood and Family Center, and we began the program there but we outgrew the space they had for us at Vick.

Currently, our parent-child activities and class sessions, parenting seminars, and early-intervention family support group meetings are held at the church.”

Peters and Winkler, who have a relationship-based approach to working with families, meet regularly and arrange monthly field trips for parents and children to acquaint families with developmentally appropriate activities geared to infants and toddlers.

Peters said classes provide free play, story and music time, a sensory or motor activity and snack time to encourage signing and speech. In addition, home visits are offered to discuss developmental concerns and parenting issues.

“We work with about 40 families each year,” said Peters, who has 16 years of experience in early childhood education. “The grant serves families from the South Side communities of Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and Morgan Park and the suburban communities of Alsip, Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn.

“We work to provide educational rights for children with special needs, and we also teach nutrition and parenting,” she said. “We try to provide as much support to parents as possible. We encourage parents to play with their children because play is a child’s work.

“A play-based educational environment is a superior place to learn. The children consider this their ‘school,’ and our goal is to offer a positive, nurturing experience that provides a seamless transition to preschool. The small group offers a supportive place for children to work on social-emotional goals, the centerpiece of the program. We hope we send these children off with a positive experience about school.”

Peters said parents who hear about the program are screened to ensure that the program is appropriate to their child and can provide helpful services.

“Mostly we work through word of mouth,” Peters said. “Our Birth to 3 parents are our best ambassadors. In addition to promoting the program, our former parents provide a continued network of support by attending and facilitating many of the early-intervention family support group meetings.”

Beverly resident Kerry Esselman has four children and has been with Birth to 3 since 2004, when she sought help for her son, Patrick, who was 9 months old at the time. In an email, Esselman explained what the program means to her.

“When my son Patrick was 9 months old, he was already in early-intervention therapy as he was not meeting his developmental milestones,” Esselman wrote. “I have had the benefit of being involved with the program with all of my children. I would not be the parent that I am without Lori and Kathy.

“When we first began in 2004, Patrick was nonverbal, had severe sensory issues, countless medical issues and social anxiety. By the time he ‘graduated’ from Birth to 3, he had found his voice and could be in a small group with a few children.

“More importantly, Lori and Kathy gave us access to resources in the community that we didn’t know existed,” according to Esselman. “They introduced us to other families who were going through the same thing as us. It gave us a chance to talk to other people who understood how difficult this journey was. They were there for us to be a shoulder to cry on when things were tough and by our side to celebrate the little successes.

“Lori and Kathy did not just help our children. They taught us how and when to advocate for our children. I was educated on my rights as a parent and my child’s rights as well. I knew what options I had for my children’s schooling and felt empowered to make decisions. I could have never done any of that without this program and without Kathy and Lori.

“This program was a lifesaver for us. I was so confused and scared when we realized that something was going on with Patrick I had no idea what was going on and felt lost. Birth to 3 changed all of that for us.

“These women are such a blessing to the families that they work with. They treat every family in the program like they are the most important family they have.”

Winkler, with 21 years of experience in early childhood education, stressed the importance of giving information to parents.

“We welcome parents with any concerns,” she said. “If we were bigger, we would take anyone who is interested, but because we have limited funds we can only reach out to about 40 families. We operate on a shoestring budget, and we are driven by each family’s particular needs.

“These can be tough times emotionally. We really care about these people, and we will work to connect with them.”

The Birth to 3 Program doesn’t actively solicit funds but welcomes community support. For more information, contact Birth to 3 at kpeters@sxu.edu or call 773-941-5708.



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