'Escuelita' lands permanent home

It offers kindergarten through eighth-grade children a place to finish homework and get extra help if they need it.

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WALLA WALLA — Esmeralda Diaz, 8, used careful brush strokes to make triangle eyes and a toothy grin on the oversized pumpkin’s face. But the other children having a go at painting the pumpkin had something slightly messier in mind.

In the spirit of Halloween, the more than 30 children who make up the Farm Labor Homes’ Academic Fun Club got to put paintbrushes and assorted paints to pumpkins both tiny and huge on Wednesday.

For Diaz’s group, working from a table set up outdoors, the project quickly turned into a paint splattering free-for-all, where the children smothered most of their paint on the hapless gourd.

Although disappointed at first, Diaz abandoned her efforts to paint a face and happily joined in the silliness. Even when program director Mariela Rosas marched the children inside to wash up, Diaz displayed a toothy grin of her own.

For four days each week during the school year, children who live at the Farm Labor Homes have an "escuelita," or little school, to turn to. It offers kindergarten through eighth-grade children a place to finish homework and get extra help if they need it, while socializing and having some fun.

Rosas, a child mentor coordinator for Children’s Home Society, established the after-school program through her agency two years ago. Open from 3:30-5:30 p.m., the club also offers a safe, enriching place for the children to go when they get out of school, at a time when many parents may still be working.

Since 2007, the club has operated from a variety of small apartments at the labor homes, moving to different units as different spaces vacated or needed to be occupied.

But the children can finally boast of an "escuelita" that is all their own.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Friends of the Farm Labor Homes secured two adjoining apartments for the club, and labored over the summer to convert the two homes into one large space suitable for the needs of the children.

Whitman College sociology professor Ray Norsworthy established the Friends of the Farm Labor Homes in 2004. Present members are Sarita McCaw, Jodi Lindquist, Jan Foster, Cindy Gregoire, Carmen Meza, Sandy Lizut and Joyce Fogg.

The group spent most of the year seeking funds, and working with the Walla Walla County Housing Authority to secure the space and convert the apartments to suit the program’s needs. Through a variety of grantors and donations, the group raised close to $9,500 to complete the project.

The end result is a unit that includes a library with ample books for various reading levels; a computer lab with several stations; a play room for younger children; and room for quiet, one-on-one tutoring.

Through the front door is the spacious main room, where eight large tables accommodate the close to 35 children the program averages. There’s also two kitchen areas, one geared for storing paints and handling art projects, and separate bathrooms for boys and girls.

Working with just two other adults on Wednesday, Rosas guided the children through the painting, and then to a quieter worksheet project that offered a chance to color while practicing reading and writing.

Rosalva Bacilio, a mother who lives at the labor homes, is the only parent who consistently helps with the club, Rosas said. Bacilio said her 5-year-old son, Alex, has been a regular of the club since last year, and helping out seemed like an easy way to show her appreciation for the program.

"I’m just so grateful for this, because my child is benefiting from this," Bacilio said in Spanish.

Alex is speaking English more confidently, she said, and she is hearing good things from his teachers at Davis Elementary in College Place, where most of the children attend school.

"He’s definitely progressed," she said.

Although strongly focused on academics, the program is also a place for children to interact in carefree and structured activities.

After the painting project got out of hand, a couple of boys stayed to help rinse the table and scrub some splattered paint off a wall.

Inside, Diaz, a third-grader at Davis, held a towel and helped girls dry their hands as they left the bathroom.

"I’m glad that it’s not permanent paint," Rosas said.

Maria Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 525-8317.

OPEN HOUSE

The public is invited to view the Academic Fun Club’s new little school, or "Escuelita," during an open house Monday from 5-7 p.m at the Farm Labor Homes. The homes are located at 165 Labor Camp Road, off Highway 125. Program director Mariela Rosas, as well as members of the Friends of the Farm Labor Homes, will be there to greet guests. The club is located in apartment 94 Lado Viejo A and B.

For more information about the Farm Labor Homes after-school program, or to volunteer, contact Rosas through Children’s Home Society at 529-2130.

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