Earlier this year, Aurora Swain of Families First in Cabarrus County pitched her nonprofit’s innovative ideas to an audience of over 900 people during Social Venture Partners’ SEED20 OnStage. Aurora’s supporters filled up the front row of Knight Theater to cheer her on as she represented Families First and the families she helps every day.
“I will never forget the first day when parents struggled to sign their names and even hold a pen,” Aurora said during her pitch. “You see, in Latin American countries education is not mandatory like in the USA. Obviously they couldn’t read or write. We resolved the problem by opening a school for adults, Monday – Saturday. I promise there is nothing more inspirational than this, seeing the power and freedom adults gain when learning how to read and write. We are educating the whole family.
Aurora’s pitch helped Families First gain support from the Charlotte-based Reemprise Fund, who recently awarded the Cabarrus County nonprofit a grant in the amount of $25,125. The grant helped them hire a consultant with Amy Clinton & Associates to help them build capacity and remain organizationally stable in attaining their vision of 5 schools in 5 years.
Families First, a direct service provider for the Cabarrus Partnership for Children, provides early childhood education and free parenting programs for parents who are struggling with parenting, poverty, addictions, and/or living linguistically isolated and their children. They operate an in-home visiting program utilizing the best practice Parents as Teachers model, the 5-star Cabarrus Bilingual Preschool, and support groups, with the goal of finding families who need assistance, give them a voice, and provide support to ensure success at home, school, and life.
Much of childhood education hones in on developing the whole child.
But at Families First, that emphasis envelops the entire family.
“A lot of organizations focus on just the kids, which is great,” Aurora Swain, co-founder of Families First, said. “But if you don’t have the parents involved or you leave the parents behind, then you’re going to hit a wall. You’re going to hit a point where if my mom can’t help or my dad, who will?
“So the fact is we are bringing everybody with us. We’re not leaving anybody behind. I’m talking about English; I’m talking about learning how to read or write; I’m talking even social and emotional. We’re preparing our parents with other problems, celebrating families.”
That innovative approach to preschool caught the attention of the SEED20 competition in Charlotte, a competition among nonprofits that are positively impacting their communities. And while Families First didn’t leave with the grand prize, the organization walked away with some great experience and exposure, to boot.
Families First began in 2014 as an effort by Swain and her husband, Spencer, in response to a need for early and family education for the under-served immigrant families in Cabarrus County.
The initiative began as a home visiting program where educators went to different homes to teach parenting skills like reading to children and setting routines. After a little while, the couple realized the need for a preschool, so they opened a five-star bilingual early education center.
“Everything was wonderful, but there was a catch,” Swain said in her SEED20 presentation. “In our first day of school, we realized that some of the parents of students couldn’t even sign their kids in and out. They couldn’t even hold a pencil. Yes, in 2017 you have adults among us that cannot read or write in their own language.”
In many Latin American countries, she said, education is not mandatory, so many people slip through the cracks. So the Swains opened a school for parents Monday through Saturday, teaching them to read and write in Spanish as well as English.
“I promise you, you haven’t seen nothing more inspirational than the power of knowledge,” she said in her presentation. “Families First educates the whole family.”
Families First receives Smart Start grant funding through Cabarrus Partnership for Children for their Parents as Teachers and Celebrating Families programs, and child care subsidies helped open the Cabarrus Bilingual Preschool.
The five-star center serves 36 children ages 3 and 4 in a kindergarten prep program. Through circle time and themed activities—all through child-led education through play—the youngsters learn the basics needed to start school as well as the fundamentals of both English and Spanish.
And Swain said the classes are quite diverse, ranging from African-American to Caucasian, Latino to even a young boy from Egypt.
“They really handle it, I feel like, better than adults because they’re used to talking to each other in their own language,” Swain said of the potential language barrier. “My humble opinion is it’s how kids really learn. You can have a teacher telling them all day long one language or another, but you can’t really learn until your friends involve you in the process.”