Downtown Fresno’s 116-year old ‘Helm Home’ has been a landmark for generations because of its distinctive shape. The mission revival-style home, sometimes called the Alamo House was once at risk of being condemned, but today it’s been impeccably restored to its former glory with high ceilings and flawless wooden floors.
But it is the library that is getting attention because of what it lends out: toys. It’s a project of the Fresno Unified School District and the Fresno Housing Authority which have established a free early childhood education program there, complete with a toy lending library. It’s called the ‘Starting Smart and Strong’ initiative.
Rebecca Lara is one of the parents who signed up for the program. She was told about it by a FUSD employee and brought her 3-year old son Julien along to play and learn.
Parents like Lara have been bringing their children, some as young as infants, to the home to better to prepare them for school.
“Because it helps them before they start school. Teaches them to play with other kids and everything,” Lara says.
The home was renovated and is owned by the Fresno Housing Authority which is letting FUSD use it rent-free.
The thinking by the district and the authority is that by reaching kids at the youngest ages and teaching non-professional caregivers how to turn play into learning, children will be better prepared for school.
To achieve this goal, the house has a unique feature: a toy lending library. The library is in a detached space in back of the house. It looks like a regular library space but instead of books, there is row after row of neatly labeled plastic boxes packed with all manner of toys.
Maria Ceballos supervises the program.
She says parents who sign up are free to borrow a toy and take it home for up to two weeks, just like a library of books. That way they can take the skills they are learning in the programs back home to enhance the experience.
“The kids might be very focused on using, for example, the ‘let’s go fishing’ play set. And they are using it during the play group and they really like it, the learning and the play doesn’t stop there. They get to continue that learning and that play at home. They come to the lending library and they check out that specific toy,” Ceballos says.
Ceballos says it has become increasingly clear to the district that they were waiting too long to try and get kids up to speed when they got to school. They needed to find a way to help kids who were under the care of non-professionals like parents, aunts and neighbors.
“I used to work with older children, with families, I always felt we were providing a lot of programs for intervention. But it was when they were older and needed that additional support. We want to start early, creating more of that prevention approach,” says Ceballos.
The program is funded by a grant Packard Foundation and is one effort to make sure every child in the district has access to the best practices for preparing their kids before they enter school.
Jose Zalapa is the main program coordinator at Helm Home.Zalapa is the main program coordinator at Helm Home.
He says he was surprised to find out that many parents did not realize that for children, playing is an important part of early learning.
“I have been hearing ‘why do we need to play with a kid? They are little they don’t understand. An infant. A toddler. A two-year-old. They don’t understand. When they get to preschool and kindergarten they will learn’ and that is just not the case,” Zalapa says.
That’s been exactly the experience of Rebecca Lara, who has taken advantage of the toy lending library to take her son’s favorite toys home for more learning.
“The blocks like the builder blocks. And the alphabet ones. He knows all the pictures on them. And he took some books home that I read to him. It felt good that I could take the books home,” Lara says.
In addition to toys, the library has books both for children but also for adults, including books on English learning, early childhood development, and GED prep.
Cabellos says they know the more than 80 children that enrolled in the first year often come from low-income families, where finding money for toys sometimes isn’t the most pressing need.
“But toys is the last thing they have in their mind. I completely respect that. There are other priorities they have to take into consideration before purchasing the toys. So that is what we have here. They are able to come and use and just bring back,” Ceballos says.
But what does the Fresno Housing Authority, which is tasked with finding safe and affordable housing, get out of getting involved in early childhood education?
Executive Director Preston Prince says FUSD came to them looking for a partnership to help the roughly 19,000 kids in FHA housing that attend the district.
“How do we leverage the time at home to make sure that they do well at school? So if it is about readiness, attendance, extended learning environment, those are the three precepts for grade level reading by third grade, that those are all areas that we play a pretty big role as a housing authority,” Prince says.
Parents who enroll do not have to be connected to the FHA, it is free and open to the public.
Prince says this is not the only time they have teamed up with school districts. They have other programs like a health care initiative in Fowler and pre-K outreach in Firebaugh. He says their approach is to listen to the needs of the district and see where they can help.
Even though the housing authority does not charge FUSD any rent, the district does pay utilities costs. That money comes out of the grant money that enabled them to start the toy lending library in the first place. Meaning, for the district and the FHA, the toy lending library is essentially free.