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MLK Center introduces children to diverse languages, cultures, religions, races

By Mary Stamp

Freda Gandy

Freda Gandy hugs children.

Parental involvement in programs for children at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Family Outreach Center spills into homes, just as cross-racial friendships among children who go there spill into schools.
“Love goes a long way, as part of our plan for relating with each child,” said Freda Gandy, director for children’s and youth programs.

“Love is part of our day-to-day work with children.  We know it makes a difference. At first, some children are shy and distrustful, but over time they open up to interact when they feel safe,” she said.

Programs for children and youth help break through fear that can lead to the type of racism Freda knew growing up in Mississippi.  She grew up in integrated schools with segregated high school proms and limited education and job opportunities for African Americans.

She left after high school and moved to Spokane in 1991 to go to college, drawn by relatives who live here.

About six years ago, as a single mother seeking a preschool for her four-year-old son, Freda began to volunteer with the preschool at the center.
Three years ago, she became   program director for the center’s children’s and youth services, earning along the way a bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology at Eastern Washington University and working now to complete a master’s in education degree at Gonzaga University.  She will graduate in June.

Freda Gandy

Freda Gandy

Caring for her son, attending school and working full time has been hard.  For a while, she also worked part time at the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.  She is now raising her eight-year-old niece, as well as her 10-year-old son.
At Holy Temple Church of God in Christ and among staff members, she finds a support community that has given her the love she needs to make it possible for her to carry the load.

Her personal experience, widened by her education, gives her understanding of parents who bring their children to programs she oversees at the center:

• Early Child Educational and Assistance (ECEAP), a family-focused preschool for 31 low-income four-year-olds, builds educational and social proficiency for children and families.

• Child care for 25 children is available in the early morning for children in ECEAP and after-school programs.

• Kindergarten child care is available five mornings a week to low-income kindergarten children.

• Fulfillment Achievement Maturity Enrichment (FAME) is an after-school program for 24 kindergarten through third-grade children.  It instills substance-abuse prevention, cross-cultural respect and self-esteem.

• Youth 2000, an after-school program for 13 fourth-to-sixth-grade children, includes substance-abuse prevention, field trips, media literacy, computer labs, community service, group mentoring, cooking classes and family involvement.

• The nine-week Summer Youth Academy for more than 75 children from three to 12 years old promotes self-esteem, diversity, literacy, recreation and service.

• The nine-week summer Teen Leadership Program for 15 youth, who are 13 to 15 years old builds leadership skills through classroom instruction, field trips and mentoring younger children.

Freda oversees a staff of eight people who provide a safe, nurturing environment for children and youth to improve their success at school and their ability to make good choices.

Children's art

Children's self portraits

Volunteers from area colleges and the community gain experience working with children from diverse populations.

“Single parents often struggle with work and caring for family.  God has blessed me with a good education so I can give back to others based on my experience and the love I receive,” Freda said. 

Knowing how hugs help her, she gives hugs.  To go to her office, she passes through the classroom.  Children run up to her for hugs.  Sometimes she stops to read to them.

“I like to read to them because books open windows to new places and build literacy skills,” she said.

She also joins them on field trips, such as to a Christmas party at Fairchild Air Force Base or to lunch with the downtown Kiwanis. 

“We do not see changes overnight from our actions.  It takes time and depends on whether the child has been exposed to violence or abuse,” Freda said.  “Staff and volunteers are encouraged when parents report changes they see in their children.”

The more volunteers she has, the more children will develop one-to-one relationships.

Drawing children from a mix of ethnic backgrounds makes it possible for Freda, staff, volunteers, children, youth and their families to live out the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., to promote unity among diverse people.

The center’s mission statement speaks of equality, respectful treatment of and accessibility for all people.

“It’s easy for the children to accept differences as they interact with each other every day.  It may be difficult to connect with and see diversity in much of Spokane, but here we draw diverse people,” Freda said. 

As children meet children of other races and cultures, they overcome fear that can arise from lack of contact and that can lead to racism, she said.

At the center, diversity is about more than race.  It also includes religion, family dynamics and different celebrations in families of similar faiths and cultures.

“By interacting with people of different backgrounds, we gain knowledge of customs and traditions of other people,” she said.  “Not all Christians, not even all Hispanic Christians, celebrate Christmas in the same way.  Similarly Jewish people celebrate Chanukkah in different ways.  There are cultures within cultures.”

Because there are some Spanish-speaking children, and some speak Russian, parents have come and taught the children some words in those languages.  Children also learn sign language.

“Children can grasp the concept that people do things in different ways,” she said. 

“I can read about Chanukkah in 50 books, but I understand more when a family comes and tells about their practices.  Children learn first hand from families of the other children they see every day.”

The program sets expectations for behavior.  It does not accept bullying or harassment, but teaches tolerance through role playing, informal talk and basic rules.  The center addresses drug and alcohol abuse as part of character building.

Staff nurture confidence and creativity, preparing children for school and for self-expression.

Parents and children learn creative ways to prevent and resolve conflicts at home and in school.

“Parents begin to realize they are the most important teachers as they are involved,” Freda said. “They design what happens in the class.  Through family services, they also learn about assistance,  weatherization, domestic violence programs and parenting skills.

“We believe families love their children and want what’s best for them.  We respect families’ cultural self-definition and include extended families in services we provide,” she said.

For information, call 455-8722.

The  Fig Tree - Copyright © January 2005