- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

The road to the future at the Families Foremost Center in Silver Spring is now paved with fluffy stuffed animals, state-of-the-art science equipment and lots of room to play.

That’s because the center, a division of the Mental Health Association and the Reginald S. Lourie Center for Infants and Young Children, has a refurbished child care center. Families Foremost provides GED courses, computer training and English as a Second Language classes for low-income adults, and offers child care for children younger than 4. Youngsters can take part in free, supervised play while their parents get training that may lead them to a better job and a better life.

“Without child care, many of the adults would not be able to take GED classes,” says Families Foremost program director Shari Waddy. “Many of our parents are newly arrived immigrants. We try to eliminate any barriers to success and provide them what they need.”

Families Foremost has been offering child care services since 1996, but the facility was lacking, Ms. Waddy says. The space was drab, the toys old and the carpet was well worn. The center recently received a $10,000 grant from Discovery Communications, Bright Horizons Childcare Centers, Gensler Architects and Clark Construction. Families Foremost temporarily closed the center in November and gutted it.

Now the space has bright paint, featuring a mural of children of different cultures. There is an electronic talking microscope, a play kitchen and several pieces of equipment, such as a basketball hoop, that encourage physical activity.

The center is modeled after the recently opened child care center at Discovery’s headquarters, also in Silver Spring. That center is operated by Bright Horizons, which now has 200 playrooms thanks to Bright Spaces, the nonprofit arm of the company. Bright Spaces playrooms operate at various community organizations and homeless shelters.

“Our whole focus is to take our expertise and give that back to the community,” says Karin Weaver, Bright Spaces national director.

While Montgomery County is considered a fairly wealthy community, U.S. census statistics show that 31 percent of residents speak English as a second language, 26 percent are foreign born and 6 percent live below the poverty line.

Many of the families at Families Foremost are, increasingly, shelter residents, Ms. Waddy says.

“The number of families with economic challenges is increasing,” she says. “We have seen an increase in the number of families we serve who need basic necessities, such as food and shelter. Without those things, they are not able to concentrate on things such as English and math skills.”

The center is licensed to serve 15 children at a time, but has about 50 families who use the center each week. Ms. Waddy hopes the learning-rich environment will encourage school readiness, which can, in turn, break the cycle of poverty.

“We have a lot of playing, but children learn through play,” Ms. Waddy says. “We have lots of activities that encourage school readiness. For many of these families, it is the first time they have seen a library. We are hoping the next generation of kids will stay in school.”

The center also screens for developmental delays and can refer families to county speech therapy and other services.

Meanwhile, Discovery has had a long association with Families Foremost, including adopting families for Christmas, says Tammy Shea, spokeswoman for Discovery. Animal Planet, a division of Discovery, recently brought in 75 plush dogs to give to families using the center.

Lots of what is found in the remodeled playroom is the same sort of educational toys the children in the Discovery Communications child care center use.

“We wanted to outfit the Families Foremost room so the kids would have the same types of learning opportunities,” Ms. Shea says.

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