The children come from rural and poor areas without daycare centers and preschools. Some have never been away from their mother or a family member. Others don’t know how to eat with a fork, open a milk carton, stand in line, or sit quietly in a room full of strangers. And yet, says United Way volunteer Catherine Martin, “We can literally see these children transform in just a few hours as we help them navigate the strange new world of kindergarten. You see a need being met immediately.”
United Way of Etowah County, in northeastern Alabama, has led volunteers annually since 2014 to host Kinder Camp, a half-day “practice session” for soon-to-be kindergarteners. Recently, three schools opened their doors just for students and parents to experience classroom routines with their teachers before the first day of school. The children also learn how to go through the cafeteria line and eat with other students, as well as visit the playground, gym, bathroom and the rest of the school.
Each child receives a free health screening, helping school administrators and teachers identify children who might need eyeglasses for example. One year the health screeners determined that a child was autistic. By identifying this in advance, the school was able to enlist the help of a special school aide to help the child keep up with his peers from day one.
The results? The students are more comfortable in an environment that is unlike any they have ever known. Teachers give the program rave reviews, saying Kinder Camp participants progress more quickly with their lessons. Kids spend less time on mastering basic routines, and the youngest students can more confidently navigate a school with older children.
Parents benefit from meeting with their child’s teacher and attending classes to learn about United Way’s information and referral hotline 2-1-1, internet safety, and ways to help their child prepare for and succeed in school. One parent said, “I feel a little more at ease sending him to school… meeting the people he’ll be around.” Another said, “This is my third child starting school and [the older children]… never had a Kinder Camp. It helps the children out tremendously and also the parents.”
United Way of Etowah County relies on the financial support of Alabama Power, Exchange Bank, and Regions Bank to host Kinder Care, along with the 40 or so enthusiastic volunteers who return each year.
“A good education is the cornerstone to a good life,” Martin concluded. “Helping a child start his school years with confidence and enthusiasm is incredibly rewarding.”