Rosa Valdez Early Childhood Learning Center
It’s not easy being a caregiver to a profoundly disabled adult child and an inaudible, angry 3-year-old grandson. It’s even harder if you’re a 70-year-old living in the inner city with no resources to support your caregiving. It’s not easy being a teen mom trying to go to school and work to make a better life for you and your disabled child. And having a disabled adult brother, you know what’s ahead. In both cases, you’re afraid and desperate for anyone who can help you do things differently and better than what you have known.
This is the situation in which the staff at Cornerstone Family Ministries’ Rosa Valdez Early Childhood Learning Center in West Tampa, Fl., found 70-year-old Essie and her 17-year-old daughter Essiya and 3-year-old grandson Elisha (pseudonymns are used to protect privacy). “Rosa,” as the center is affectionately called by neighbors, has served Essie’s inner-city neighborhood for 118 years. Essie remembered it from when she was a little girl. It had been a place that cared for children for as long as she could remember, but she was skeptical that Rosa could do anything to help her grandson.
It took a lot of convincing from Essiya for Essie to allow her grandson to go to a preschool with strangers when he could stay home with Grandma. But Essiya was determined. She had watched over the years as her brother slipped deeper into his own world, unable to speak, only grunting when he needed attention and staring at the television the rest of the day.
Essiya didn’t know what was wrong with her little Elisha, but she knew she didn’t want his life to end up like her brother’s, and this meant Essie had to let him go to Rosa. Essie was not totally naive in her skepticism—she had let him go several times before to other child care centers, and every time it ended the same, with a call asking them to pick little Elisha up and not bring him back. She believed that taking him to Rosa would be just another disappointment.
Once convinced, Essiya brought Elisha for his first day. The Rosa staff greeted him warmly, but he just grunted and thrashed his arms and ran around the room throwing everything he could find. Though he was 3 years old, the staff placed him in the 2-year-old room to start.
Miss Jodie, Rosa’s behavioral therapist who comes in two times a week to work with children, started working with Elisha. She identified early that he was autistic, and for the first time someone entered his world and reached out to him in ways that he could understand. Miss Jodie worked with Elisha and his teachers at Rosa to help him ask for what he needed without getting angry and frustrated, to play without hurting others and to say a few words clearly.
Within three months he was an entirely different child, happy and secure in this new place called Rosa. Miss Jodie also worked with Essiya and Essie to help them understand how to relate to Elisha. Essiya was open, but Essie resisted. After all, she had been taking care of a child like this for a long time and she knew how this would all end; there was no need to give false hope. But Essiya and the teachers at Rosa knew she was wrong. They saw promise in Elisha’s eyes and evidence of what could be for Elisha with the right care and patient teachers to help him navigate his disability.
Elisha is just one of the 70 preschool children ages infant to 5 years old who attend the Rosa Valdez Early Childhood Learning Center. Not all of the children are autistic, and not all of the children have a disability, but all of them are from poor families living in the inner city who like Elisha’s mom are trying to make a better life for their children by going to work and/or school while their children are cared for in a safe setting where literacy and learning are the centerpiece in every classroom and Christ’s love is the covering that makes everyone equally loved. Like Essie, Essiya and Elisha, once they walk through the doors of Rosa, their lives are forever changed.
Cornerstone Family Ministries is grateful to the United Methodist Women for their support of the Rosa Valdez Early Childhood Learning Center and its other programs to preschool-aged children, making it possible for families like these to have hope for a brighter future.
Cathy Capo Stone is executive director of Cornerstone Family Ministries in Tampa, Fl.