Weekend Highlights

Published November 2, 2012
Health & Development

Neighborhood House Center a Second Home for High Point Families

by Wenda Reed
seattle child article photo
Shire Mahdi, 9 (left) and his brother Warsame (Same) Mahdi play at the Neighborhood House.

seattle child article photo
Hibo Samatar and her sons, Shire (left) and Same (right).
Photos by Kevin Casey.

We are a nation of immigrants, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Seattle Housing Authority’s public housing communities at High Point, Rainier Vista, NewHolly and Yesler Terrace.

Neighborhood House fits right in. The independent nonprofit agency has its roots in 1906 as a settlement house for Jewish immigrants from Turkey, Greece and other European countries. Now it operates in the four public housing communities and other locations in King County, helping 13,500 adults and children a year. Eighty percent of the low-income clients are immigrants and refugees from around the world.

At the three-year-old state-of-the-art Neighborhood House High Point Center in West Seattle, about 4,000 clients from the surrounding community speak 19 languages and dialects. To the people who live in High Point, the center is the starting point for finding security and an education in an unfamiliar country.

“It’s like a gift to us,” High Point resident Hibo Samatar says of the center. “Anything we need, we come here first.”

Her path to Seattle is a common one. She fled the savagery of Somalia’s long civil war by herself in 2000. “Anyone who could leave, did,” she remembers. An older cousin helped her come to America, and she arrived in Seattle, via Virginia and Ohio, to visit her extended family. She loved the area – including the rain – and settled in Renton, moving to the new mixed-income High Point community in 2009, the same year Neighborhood House built its new center. She describes the community as “clean, beautiful and safe,” and a great place to bring up her three children.

The Neighborhood House Center, a few steps from her house, is a big part of her enthusiasm in living at High Point.

The day I met Samatar, her two sons, 9-year-old Shire and 7-year-old Warsame (Same, pronounced “Sammy”), bounded into the Family Center room and found magnetic toys to play with and books to read. “They think this is their second home,” Samatar says. The family used the center to access computers before they got their own; Samatar comes for the women-only exercise classes; and the boys have tutoring two evenings a week. It’s not that they’re behind at school, their mother says, but the tutoring keeps them focused on their homework in a nondistracting place, and the tutors can share knowledge she may not have.

The family is most enthusiastic about the free summer camp. The previous summer, Samatar felt bad that some of her children’s friends talked about camp when she could not afford it for her boys. She scraped up enough money for one week at a private camp, but it turned out to be mostly childcare with no activities. This past summer, she was delighted to find the free camp at the center, so that the boys “had fun and did not lose all they’d learned in the school year.” (The boys’ sister, 11-year-old Fathi, is involved in Rainier Scholars, an intensive college-preparatory program for children of color, and so had her own lessons and homework for the summer.)

“I learned how to play a game about animals. I learned about (musical) beats. I learned how sound goes from one place to another,” Same recounts breathlessly. “We went to the lake and you put stuff in the water in a tube and you shake it and it turns different colors to show how dirty it is.” Shire’s similar field trip was to Longfellow Creek, where campers looked for fish and measured water quality. He enthusiastically shares all he’s learned about polygons and geometric shapes.

A Promise for the Future

Shire and Same’s joy and confidence in learning is a part of the new, developing culture of High Point.

“Our core mission is poverty alleviation,” says Neighborhood House Executive Director Mark Okazaki, who grew up in south Seattle, attending John Muir Elementary School, Mercer Middle School, Cleveland High School and the University of Washington. “Our ultimate goal is to work with our partners to do wrap-around services, especially for children. We want to have a change in culture: That High Point students will succeed.”

That goal is embodied in a strategy called the High Point Promise Initiative – “to ensure that every child at High Point receives the support and quality education necessary to go to college.” The initiative is not a program, Okazaki says. It’s a multi-year, multi-million-dollar strategy to do the most with existing resources and look for more funding to follow High Point’s 1,200 schoolage children, plus babies, toddlers and preschoolers, from birth through entrance into college or other post-secondary education.

The initiative is inspired by the work of Geoffrey Canada in the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York. Canada and his colleagues are dedicated to ensuring that all 10,000 children in a 97-block area of Harlem go to college. Beyond education in highquality charter schools, parents and students in the “Zone” receive help with physical and mental health, early learning, social issues, food and shelter and anything else that supports students so that they can learn. (Read more about it at www.seattleschild.com/article/a-chat-with-geoffrey-canada.)

Some staff members at Neighborhood House brought Canada’s ideas forward before he became well known, when the High Point Center was in the planning stages, Okazaki remembers. “We wondered, ‘Could we replicate it at High Point?’”

Neighborhood House received some funding from the Gates Foundation, Chase Bank and others to do research and planning for the initiative and to begin implementing changes. Okazaki describes the High Point Promise Initiative as an “incremental, organic march” toward all High Point children’s success.

Children and Family Programs

And success starts early: Two colorful, fully equipped Head Start preschool classrooms for children ages 3 to 5 are housed in the High Point Center’s lower floor, with the community park and playground just outside.

Muna Mohamed, also a refugee from Somalia, is most appreciative of Head Start for her 4-year-old daughter, Azhar. “She loves it – the teacher, the classroom, everything,” Mohamed says. “She’s like a big girl, going to school. She learns her ABC’s, her colors. She just learned the colors of traffic lights, and was explaining what they meant to me while I was driving.” Although Azhar is bilingual, her mother says, “If she’s feeling shy or quiet, it’s nice to have an adult at school who can speak to her in her own language.”

Research conclusively shows that children who go to a high-quality preschool start kindergarten prepared to succeed. Mohamed saw the influence of the Head Start program on her older daughter, Ashwak, now 8, even though she was only able to attend the preschool for a year. “She learned sharing and making friends. When she went to school, it was not so scary. I know I could try to do the teaching at home, but it wouldn’t be the same – there wouldn’t be the school routine or the friends.”

Experts in early learning also know that the most critical time to reach a child is before age 3. Mohamed is planning to enroll her 1-year-old son, Amir, in Early Head Start. Child development professionals come to the homes of children from birth to age 3 once a week to support and encourage parents and share information about how children develop and activities to help them learn. Five years ago, United Way began funding the Parent-Child Home Program at Neighborhood House. Trained visitors come to the homes of 2-and 3-year-old children with books and educational toys and help parents build their kids’ language and literacy skills.

Parents and caregivers can also drop in to the High Point Center for free weekly Play and Learn sessions with a variety of toys and manipulatives. Family nights, parenting support, help for kinship caregivers (grandparents and other relatives raising children), homework help and tutoring for school-age children and art programs for families are also offered.

Educators know that middle school can be a critical transition point for young people, and at-risk children need support all through high school. Neighborhood House offers youth tutoring and resource centers at all of its facilities as well as family nights and workshops at local schools to help parents, especially non-English-speaking ones, advocate for their children. Some of the agency’s most intensive youth education programs are based in Kent and Auburn, including substance abuse prevention for middle school students in Auburn and White Center and an out-of-school program at West Auburn High School for students who are dropping out of traditional classrooms.

At High Point, young people ages 13 to 18 can also participate in YELS (Youth Empowered with Leadership Strengths). The leadership program for those in grades 5 through 8 focuses on the environment, science and technology. Workshops for high school students emphasize community engagement. On Wednesday evenings students can help grow their own food, cook it and share a meal, while learning about the politics of food production. For fun, there’s also Youth Game Nights, CHILL Snowboard in the winter, Skate Like a Girl year round, a spring break arts camp and college and career workshops.

The center also rents space to other organizations serving youth, children and families, including the Seattle Housing Authority, High Point Neighborhood Association and Catholic Community Services. Seattle Public Schools’ Middle College High School moved to the center this school year.

A Community ‘Living Room’

While Samatar’s  English is good, she recognizes that many of her neighbors, Somali or otherwise, have a more difficult time finding the help they need. “I send everyone here (to the center). They help you out or give you a reference to where you can get help – if you can’t pay your electricity bill or you need eviction prevention or anything else. They don’t say, ‘We don’t do that here.’ They make the calls for people and fi nd where they can get the services.”

Indeed, Neighborhood House High Point Center staff members speak a variety of languages, and offer bilingual, one-on-one case managers for family and social services. They provide health care, including HIV-AIDS and substance abuse prevention and “Breathe Easy” homes for families with children with asthma. Help is available for adult education and employment assistance, ESL (English as a Second Language), computer skills and even a sewing class to prepare immigrant women to work in small local garment businesses. A fleet of vans provides door-to-door transportation for people to get to necessary appointments. As the “community living room,” the center is used for town meetings, art nights and potluck dinners.

There is much more to do, without question. And in only three years, Neighborhood House has made a phenomenal start. The community would be lost without its living room.

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Ways to Help

Although Neighborhood House does not have any holiday-specific giving programs, families with children can always raise money to donate to the organization to help low-income families with their needs. For example, $25 helps a newly-arrived refugee pay for English classes or ensures that an infant receives his yearly developmental and behavioral screenings. A gift of $35 buys an assortment of games, such as Uno, Monopoly and chess, for the Family Center or ensures that one child receives nutritious snacks after school for one year. To donate, call 206-461-8430, Ext. 230 or visit www.nhwa.org/makeadifference.

Volunteers are always welcome, and the volunteer program is flexible so that Neighborhood House staff members can create opportunities for families to do a project together. Currently, volunteers are needed to assist with client services, work with teens in the YELS gardening/cooking program or tutor students at a variety of locations. To learn more, call Volunteer Coordinator Courtney Jacob at 206-461-8430, Ext. 255 or e-mail her at courtneyj@nhwa.org.

Goals of the High Point Promise Initiative

A big goal is “saturation,” Okazaki says. This means that all eligible low-income children are served.

But the two Head Start Preschools can only serve a total of 40 High Point children – last year there was a 60-child waiting list for 26 open slots created when 5-year-olds graduated. Okazaki said, “We know that the achievement gap starts from children not being ready for kindergarten, and yet we had to turn so many children away. We asked ourselves, ‘Are there other kinds of quality preschool services we can provide, in addition to our Head Start classes?’”

Neighborhood House recently won a grant from the City of Seattle to bring a free Step Ahead Preschool class to the High Point Center. It operates much like the Head Start classes, but will serve an additional 20 preschoolers. The United Way grant to expand the Parent-Child Home Program to High Point was another step toward saturation, as are summer youth enrichment programs. Neighborhood House is hoping to work with the College Success Foundation to help high school students plan and prepare for college.

Another goal is continuity. “A lot of funding is categorical,” Okazaki says – meaning that a grant is given for a certain program for a certain period of time, and then it ends or the child ages out. “A hard nut to crack is the connective tissue. We are wondering if we can create a system to track a child from birth through preschool, school and college.”

One idea is “education navigators” who would follow one child through the whole education system for as long as he lives at High Point. In middle and upper income families, the “navigator” is usually a parent who advocates for their child all through school. Often immigrant families working several jobs don’t have the time, the resources or the understanding to carry out that role. Some families manage well, while others may struggle.

While Neighborhood House continues to apply for federal and local philanthropic grants, a big part of the initiative is working with partners. “Our question is, ‘How can we be more effi cient in the use of resources we already have? How can we re-align them to serve the most children? How can we cobble together new resources and connections? And can we take the lessons we learn to other public housing communities?’” Okazaki says. Neighborhood House is working hard to forge the way.