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PARENTS, KIDS GET EVEN START

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Seven children of all races and colors gather around a sink set on wooden legs on the floor of Lincoln Elementary School. It's filled with soapy water and loads of bubbles.

It's hot outside, but, wrapped in tiny aprons, these pint-size "homemakers" work intently in the cool classroom, hardly talking. They stack common kitchen items, float them, wash them. Over and over.They're having a ball.

At 11 a.m. their parents come in for "together time." Kim McCashland walks over to a knee-high table where her daughter, Laurine, and her niece, Amber, are getting ready to paint.

Three mornings a week, parents and children from the neighborhood participate in Even Start Family Literacy Project, a federal grant-funded program that targets low-income families that have pre-schoolers. Parenting and literacy are the major focuses. This summer, for the first time, homeless families from the Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center were bused over to take part.

"The staff has to be a nurturing family unit in order to help families," said Donna Anderson, Even Start coordinator at Lincoln and Jackson elementary schools. "We have to nurture families and strengthen families to grow as a learning unit. To do that, they also have to be able to provide for their families - they need literacy and job skills.

Designed as a literacy program and offered here by the Salt Lake School District, Even Start has broadened its scope to include parenting classes, preparation for the General Education Diploma (GED) test, job training and computer classes. The teachers also offer health and nutrition information, skill-building and more.

The pre-school children have programs and activities while the parents take classes. They get together for meals and playtime. Elementary-age children attend the Lincoln Elementary Enrichment Program, directed by Colleen Croudy. In the afternoons, the 11- to 16-year-olds go to the University of Utah for a National Youth Sports Program. Younger children from the shelter have classes there. The parents are free for the day.

Once a week parents and younger children go on field trips to places like the planetarium, Red Butte Gardens or the zoo.

"We've been so poor for so long that that normally isn't an option to us," said Shirley Lyon, who attends Even Start with her grandchildren.

The program just ended for the summer. In the fall, it will go back to an after-school program. And the shelter may or may not participate, depending on whether it can raise the funding to contract for the service.

"I've seen lots of changes in the parents," said Even Start's Terri Cononelos. "They have improved self-confidence. They realize they are capable of getting a better job, participating in their child's education. We have a lot of non-English-speaking families and children get bilingual faster, which gives them tremendous power within the family. Too much. We want to help parents get back that leadership role in the family."

Shelter families don't have language barriers; they have problems with motivation, skills and opportunity, said Travelers Aid director Maun Alston. They often must learn to be nurturers.

Sabrina Ramirez, who has four children, particularly likes the computer classes and the field trip. More important, though, are the skills she is getting in parenting.

"We get practice being together and they learn to behave," she said. "I wouldn't even go into the store with my kids before because we had problems. Now we go into restaurants. We do more as a family. Before (Even Start) I didn't really care what the kids thought of me as a parent. Now I do. I'm a better parent."

Joliene Castillo has four children and another on the way. The program has helped her family, and she thinks "it should be mandatory for the welfare system."

"This is a loving, rich environment for kids," said Alston. "There are parents at the shelter who don't have a clue about talking to babies, singing, etc."

Even Start staff includes GED and ESL instructors, job trainers, registered nurses to talk about health and parenting, pre-school teachers and bilingual parenting instructors.

"This was a chance to do something and not just sit around or do housework. One of my goals is to learn everything I can. This has been a really good chance," said Lyon.

Most participants are low-income and qualify through the free school-lunch program, said Flora Weggeland, director for at risk and early childhood programs at Salt Lake City School District.

"Without assistance they won't be able to get their feet on the ground and get going," she said. "They're highly motivated and willing to work hard."