Oregon Childhood Development Coalition turns 40

August 27, 2011

It's a hot Wedensday afternoon and Julie Hollamon and Paloma Rodriguez are sweating a bit keeping tabs on about 10 youngsters. The day is one of the hottest of summer, and luckily the Parkdale Community Center classroom has a small air conditioner working extra hard to keep the room comfortable. It's afternoon storytime, and the kids are ready with wild animal masks and dance moves that go along with their corresponding creature. The combination CD and picture-book story is in English, so they have to remember how to say their creature in order to come roaring, crawling, swimming or slithering across the room at the right time.

The post-nap activity gets the kids reenergized quickly; a good way to finish off the afternoon before heading home.

For 15 weeks this summer the kids have a similar routine at the Parkdale facility. While their parents are busy working in farms, orchards and packing houses, they are busy learning, socializing and playing the day away through a migrant head start program offered by Oregon Child Development Coalition.

Following the tragic death of a 5-year-old girl in an orchard four decades ago, a group of valley residents planted seeds for what quickly grew into the Oregon Child Development Coalition. The intent was to provide child care for migrant farm workers during the busy harvest season, allowing parents to focus on harvest while giving young children a structured and safe environment to spend their summer days.

This year OCDC - now a statewide program that serves more than 3,000 children and families in 12 counties- marks its 40-year anniversary. Many thousands of children have passed through the program, both locally and across the state.

In recognition of its impact on the community, and to celebrate the anniversary, OCDC is hosting an event Tuesday evening in Parkdale.

"We are excited to open our doors and celebrate with the community what our center brings to Parkdale," said Jennifer Ericksen de Heredia, program director, Hood River and Wasco counties. "OCDC is celebrating 40 years and what better way to celebrate than invite the community to the "birthplace" of where it all began," said Heredia.

The birthplace, Parkdale Community Center, hasn't changed a lot since the first group of kids came through the program four decades ago. The program, however, has changed considerably.

It started as basically child care during harvest, but today, in Hood River County, OCDC provides a wide scope of services to children and families at facilities in both Parkdale and Odell. Through two different programs - either Seasonal or Migrant - the services families receive are a lot more than just babysitting. A bilingual educational model serves classroom activities, teachers monitor children on physical, mental and emotional well-being, meals and transportation are provided and counselors, health care professionals and social services are readily available for those in need. OCDC also provides parental education classes for adults; and with federal funding, all the services are free.

"I came into the program when I was 3 years old," said Liliana Munoz, now a family advocate for OCDC. That was 1988; her parents had moved to Parkdale but were working at farms around the northwest during harvest. "After high school I got a job with OCDC for the summer. I really loved working with the children and wanted to make it more than just a summer job. The program helped me and my family a long time ago, so it was really rewarding to be able to help other children and their families."

OCDC helped Munoz get an Associates Degree in Early Childhood Education, which she is putting to good use in the classroom at the county's Odell facility. With continued scholarship support, she's now working on her bachelor's degree.

"I really love what the program offers the community, and being a part of it is amazing," she said. "The services we provide are very important, and for many who live and work on farms, without our programs, the children would not have many of those opportunities."

Nearly all of the students who enter the program speak little to no English, which, if they will enter the county school system at kindergarten, is a tremendous challenge.

"Classrooms are bilingual," Heredia explained. "One teacher always speaks English and another teacher always speaks Spanish. The goal is to have students proficient in English by the time they reach kindergarten."

If not proficient, at least the children will have been exposed to a lot of English by the time they enter the school system.

Joaquina Contreras is another longtime resident and originally a recipient of OCDC, who has since become a staff member. Quina, as she is known, was a parent when the program was just getting started. Today she can hardly hold back her enthusiasm for working with children, the program, for the services it provides to families.

"I feel the most important part of a person's life is from zero to five years old," she said. "The children and families need help, and I am so happy to be a part of giving it. In the beginning the program was just play and daycare, but now it is education and preparation. We prepare children for everything."

Contreras has also earned her Associates Degree, which she is very proud of. She's been with the program long enough that today her students are children of her former students, and she's hoping to see some of them at Tuesday's celebration.

"Oh, I'm nervous," she said about a speech she's supposed to give at the event.

Leave it to a seasoned teacher, who has spoken in front of thousands of children over many years, to be nervous about a short speech in front of a small group.

She's nervous, she said, because she doesn't know how to do justice to a program that has affected so many lives for so long.

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