Standing out like Easter eggs in a nest of the boarded-up buildings and abandoned homes that crowd Houston's Lombardy Street are three pastel-purple houses that provide hope for homeless families struggling to get by.
The houses are the headquarters of SEARCH's House of Tiny Treasures, an urban preschool that gives children a chance at a better education regardless of their parents' financial situation.
"No matter their economic lot in life, I've yet to meet a parent who doesn't genuinely want the best for his or her child," said program director Mitzi Bartlett. "We fill the gaps. We provide everything from diapers to new shoes, everything these children need to be successful in public school."
They've been doing it since 1992 with the only requirement being that parents must be working, attending school or participating in a job training program. The only requirement from the children -- ranging from ages one to six -- is curiosity and an eagerness to learn from a professional staff that includes an art therapist, play therapist, speech pathologist and full-time social worker.
It starts with literacy, Bartlett said, and parents' involvement is crucial. "Literacy is the basis of everything,” she said. “If you can’t read and write, you can't do math. You can't do science. Just putting words up on a wall at school doesn’t work. The parents need to get involved. The kids need to see you, me, mom and other family members speaking to one another, to learn how a conversation goes.”
Why it's important is underscored in a study, titled “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. It concluded that children from high-income families are exposed to 30 million more words by the time they are three than children from families on welfare. In addition, if children are not reading by the time they’re in third grade, they are not likely to graduate from high school.
To help parents with the child literacy challenge, House of Tiny Treasures has partnered with the University of Houston-Downtown on a program that brings professors, UHD students and parents together for literacy events.
“At these events, parents can learn how to teach their kids to formulate and work through a conversation,” Bartlett said. “The kids start to recognize the patterns and develop cognitive processes."
“We’re not telling parents how to be parents,” said Leigh Van Horn, interim dean of the University of Houston-Downtown’s College of Public Service. “We want to respect what these parents already have given their children. Our teacher candidates are there to observe and learn what the children know, to see how the parents are working with them and build on that.”
At each event, families receive a book. “We do an interactive read-aloud,” Van Horn said. “Then, we do a literacy activity that reinforces the theme of the book.” All supplies, including books, materials needed for the activity and dinner are provided thanks to a grant from the Union Pacific Foundation.
To plan the activities for each event, Van Horn works closely with Bartlett to design exercises that directly relate to the children’s issues. The goal is to show parents games they can play with their children to reinforce reading and writing skills even in a temporary living situation. In many cases, the books the children receive at the event are the first and only book they own.
The first time Van Horn attended Literacy Night, she found the experience so moving that she forgot how to drive home. “I had to just sit there for a while and think, because it was like nothing I’d ever seen,” she said. “My students are so empowered through this experience. After, they ask me if there are other things they can do to help this special school. A program like this moves future teachers beyond our classroom and into true community engagement. It’s a magical experience.”
Studies show children who receive a solid education during early childhood are less likely to experience teen pregnancy, are healthier and more likely to give back to their community and stay out of prison. “All of these things contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty,” Bartlett said.
She said the success stories she cherishes are proof that the House of Tiny Treasures program is doing something right.
“A few years ago I was driving through a little town northwest of Houston called Tomball,” Bartlett said. “My car stopped working. At the car repair place, I met a woman who asked what I did. I explained that I work for SEARCH House of Tiny Treasures. The woman smiled, and told me her daughter went to our school and would be attending college soon. The girl is now a professional political children’s advocate. She interned with the House of Tiny Treasures when she was a sophomore in college.”
Although most families eventually no longer need the support the purple homes provide, staff members stay connected. “We like to say we walk with our families; we don’t tell them how to walk,” Bartlett said. “Sometimes people stumble. We’re just here to help.”