In 1983, the building of Our Lady of Sorrows Church on Genesee St. was declared by the Diocese of Buffalo to be in danger of a structural collapse. Thirty-three years later, the church is unfortunately gone, but the building still stands and has been put to good use. The King Urban Life Center, a nonprofit organization focused on community development, purchased the the building and made it a strong neighborhood center and the home of Buffalo’s first charter school. Though the school moved to a different location two years ago, the Center remains a strong force in the community, operating a variety of educational programs that serve youth, adults and seniors in the immediate neighborhood and beyond.
“The main goal of the King Urban Life Center is to solidify its presence in the Western New York Community through the expansion of its programs,” says David Greenman, who has served as the Center’s executive director for the past two years.
These programs include after-school tutoring, computer literacy classes (in affiliation with the UB Educational Opportunity Center), and preparation for high school equivalency (TASC, formerly known as the GED). However, the crown jewel of the Center is its Parent-Child Home Program, an intensive set of thirty-minute sessions meant to break the cycle of poverty by preparing very small children for school success.
“We work with children aged eighteen months to three years; we provide parents with educational toys and literacy materials, and we urge them to work with their children to promote language development and school readiness,” says Lisa Alexander, the program’s coordinator. “A lot of times parents don’t realize the importance of starting at a young age to work with their kids, or they don’t have access to the kinds of books and other materials we offer.”
The program, which currently employs eight teachers and serves sixty families around the city, is free of charge and offered on a first-come, first-serve basis (it currently has a waiting list of sixty additional families). However, parents must commit to participate alongside their children for two full years and receive forty-six visits from the visiting teachers. In terms of impact assessment, Alexander, who has coordinated this program since 2000, says that the program has a measurable impact on children’s cognitive and social skill development as well as parent-child interaction.
“Some parents are resistant to our methods at the beginning, as they may feel uncomfortable opening their homes to visiting teachers. Some initially have a hard time engaging in activities, getting distracted by cell phones or other interruptions,” Alexander explains. “But these same parents become strivers once they realize the impact this kind of work has on children. One mother recently told me that she was not aware she could begin teaching children at such a young age.”
The toys and books used in the program are called verbal interactive stimulus materials (visms), and Alexander has developed an extensive curriculum of activities involving them. She notes that many of these materials are quite simple; they focus on teaching basic concepts like colors, numbers, letters and shapes. In a world where so many parents – even low income ones – use spare income to buy cell phones and tablets for their children, Alexander stresses the importance of traditional toys.
“Children in poverty are at the highest risk of entering school late if they don’t know their full name, date of birth, parents’ names, letters, numbers, shapes and colors,” Alexander says. “Play is the most important way children learn, and electronics are no substitute for traditional, tactile toys. Doing a puzzle on a tablet is no substitute for doing a real one – actually touching the pieces and putting them in the right place.”
In terms of challenges faced by the program, Alexander states that the biggest obstacle is always funding. The King Urban Life Center receives almost entirely non-government funding; 75% comes from the United Way, and the remainder comes from a variety of private foundations. This ongoing struggle is one of many reasons why Alexander is eager to form connections with other groups and organizations working in the Broadway-Fillmore area.
“It is so easy for entities in the area to become siloed, to not even know of one another’s existence. More collaboration would help us to attract more of the funding we all rely on so much and also to be more effective at what we are trying to do,” she says. “Education from an early age is the biggest key to breaking the cycle of poverty.”
In terms of future plans, the King Urban Life Center has several new projects in process, but Executive Director Greenman is not willing to talk about these just yet, other than to say that they involve education and neighborhood redevelopment. Greenman adds that the center intends to serve the needs and protect the interests of the immediate community surrounding the Center as well as all Western New York.
“We are happy to see that the city has taken a lot of interest in redeveloping our area, but there is also neighborhood concern that this development and potential gentrification might push local residents out,” he says.
He adds that in the past, the King Urban Life Center’s area has been somewhat cut off from the neighboring Broadway-Fillmore district, and he would like to see that changed. He and all of his staff members hope that the expansion of the Center’s programs will lead to stronger connections with other community organizations that share similar goals.