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May 5, 2008

Teaching others to truly see-How United Way investments are helping a local child to thrive

When New Haven resident Angela Russell was looking for child care for her ten-month-old daughter, Brianna, she wanted a place that would foster curiosity and confidence in her child. The search for quality day care can be stressful for any parent, but it was especially challenging for Angela because Brianna is blind.

Angela found Creating Kids at the Connecticut Children’s Museum, a New Haven child care center that is dedicated to serving the needs of children and their families.

Brianna is now a very busy and curious six-year-old who loves music, Barbie dolls and The Wizard of Oz. “She has blossomed into an independent and curious little girl,” her mother says. “She’s very bright.”

Successes like that are why United Way of Greater New Haven and Creating Kids team up to provide the highest quality early education possible. Sandy Malmquist, director of Creating Kids, says that tuition support from United Way helps kids like Brianna receive an education that “supports multiple ways of learning and being in the world.”

Creating Kids is providing the early intervention that The American Foundation for the Blind says is needed to improve the educational outcomes for blind children. Because of Brianna’s blindness, the teachers at Creating Kids began to emphasize new ways learning for all their students.

To encourage three-dimensional learning, instead of simply showing the children a picture of an orange, teachers would pass an orange around the classroom, giving each student an opportunity touch, smell, and describe the orange.

Malmquist says, “It was as if Brianna had come to Creating Kids with a bag full of 3D glasses, a pair for each of us sighted people. With her help, we were all learning to see the layers, corners, sounds and shapes in the world.”

Children’s picture books were brailled and Malmquist says that both teachers and students learned to read descriptively and with a “sense of touch.” When describing a room, teachers would carry Brianna around the perimeter of the classroom, feeling the straight walls that created the word “room.”

Everything in the classroom, from art supplies to a bucket of toy dinosaurs, is labeled in English, Spanish and Braille. And often, Malmquist says, teachers find sighted children running their fingers across the Braille as they recognize a toy or a book’s cover.

“Teaching any child means giving them opportunities to learn and lead,” Malmquist says, and Brianna is no exception. During Nocturnal Animal Week, Brianna and her friends were tucked away in a makeshift tent in a darkened room as they learned about owls, raccoons, possums and mice by listening to their distinctive sounds. Malmquist remembers all the children asking Brianna, “Which animal is that?” She knew them all.

Brianna’s mother says, “There are no words I can use to describe how she’s benefited. Part of the reason Brianna blossomed was because of her wonderful relationship with a high-school student, Jessie, who volunteered [link: http://www.uwgnh.org/volunteer/home.cfm] at Creating Kids one summer. Jessie is also blind and says Brianna never worried about her own blindness or let it get her down.”

Jessie fondly remembers the summer she worked with Brianna. “The first word that popped into my head when I met her was ‘feisty,’” she says. “That was her in a nutshell–joking around with the staff, jumping from one activity to the next at lightning speed, constantly asking questions about everyone and everything.”

Malmquist describes how, upon their first meeting, Brianna gave Jessie a guided tour of the daycare center: “Imagine, for a moment, the confidence of this four-year-old, holding the hand of a 16-year-old, describing the play yard and providing accurate directions as they both traversed it.”

As a parent of five children, Brianna’s mother Angela says that Creating Kids relieved immense burdens for her. “The school has really embraced us as a family and not just as a child in their care who has special needs,” she says.

And the impact of a quality, encouraging education has been immeasurable for Brianna. “She still remembers stories from years ago,” Angela says. “She loves to play make believe stories and to teach her siblings.”

It is difficult to determine who is more thankful for Brianna’s years at Creating Kids, the day care staff or Brianna and her family. Malmquist says that her school’s language became fuller and more descriptive. Teachers used to tell the children, “Come, look at this bird in the window!” But now, teachers say, “Come, listen to the bird at the window!”

Brianna’s mother says, “I am just so thankful because Creating Kids helped make sure that Brianna got what she’s entitled to. They have always gone the extra mile. Always.”

Or perhaps the most grateful person is that gifted high school student, Jessie, who saw the bright spark in her young friend. “I’ll never forget one little girl in particular, the most rambunctious of them all, as she took my hand that first day and teased me, ‘Come on, Jessie, what do you think you're doing? Jump with me!’”

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