East L.A. Daycare Center Celebrates 35th Anniversary

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Los Angeles County officials say proposed state budget cuts could make quality day care scarcer than it is now in working class neighborhoods. They point to the example of Centro de Ninos, a 35-year-old day care center in East LA. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez paid a visit.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: The early 1970s were a time of protests and activism in East L.A.'s Mexican-American neighborhoods. Sandy Serrano-Sewell had two small children then. She'd moved from Ohio, and the male-dominated leadership of Chicano activist groups turned her off. But neither was she thrilled with the mainstream feminist movement.

Sandy Serrano-Sewell: Which was Anglo and gave the impression to many women that, in order to belong to it, you had to have a deep hatred of men and you had to burn your bra. Neither of which Latinas at that time were really into.

Guzman-Lopez: So Chicana activists like her created their own group. They called it the Comision Femenil Mexicana Nacional, a national Chicana feminist organization. Its agenda was to train women for leadership through job training and preparation for college. The group, Serrano-Sewell says, hit a roadblock early on.

Serrano-Sewell: You can't have a job if you don't have child care.

Guzman-Lopez: In response, the group started the Centro de Ninos, the children's center, in an abandoned building in East L.A.'s Maravilla neighborhood. There's been a waiting list ever since. Serrano-Sewell is its executive director now. She says the center stuck to the basics during its first years.

Serrano-Sewell: It was more of, you know, a nice babysitting situation where, you know, you took care of the children and you gave them their things to eat, and maybe read them a story, and put them to nap. But there was not a lot of emphasis on the whole developmental stages of the child as there is today.

Woman speaking to baby: Esta mirando los arboles.

Guzman-Lopez: On a recent afternoon, Maura Solorio picks up a seven-month-old boy after his nap. He's one of 80 kids ranging from three months to five years old who are regulars at the Centro. Researchers say a child's brain development during the first three years help set its course through life.

Those findings, Serrano-Sewell says, have transformed this and most other day care centers into incubators for children's emotional and social growth. All the Centro instructors are trained in early childhood development. It's all about making the most of the kids' everyday experiences, Serrano-Sewell says. The lessons extend into the whole day – even lunch time.

Serrano-Sewell: What did you eat today? Well, you know, I had sopa and tortillas. And well, what do you think Suzie ate, and Suzie is Japanese-American, do you think maybe she ate that too? Well maybe in Southern California she did eat that, but maybe she ate rice, and maybe she ate some other things. Oh, you eat rice too!

Guzman-Lopez: After putting on their shoes, about a dozen toddlers sit in a circle while program director Andy Lopez plays a day care classic.

Man singing and playing guitar: If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands, if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands...

Guzman-Lopez: Five years ago the Centro saw proof of its success. Fourteen-hundred adults who'd enrolled there as children responded to a survey. None had gone to jail, and nearly a quarter had attended colleges or universities. That says a lot. By one count, there are 18 street gangs in this neighborhood. The area's gotten tougher, Serrano-Sewell says, and she still worries about the children's transition to elementary school.

Serrano-Sewell: I think what always saddens me is that they herd all the children together, and the first thing they do is strip them of individuality.

Guzman-Lopez: L.A. County Child Care officials say Centro de Ninos is a model of quality care and fiscal stability. But it's a struggle to maintain its cash flow. Sandy Serrano-Sewell says the center bases its fees on family income, so that means most parents don't pay.

Centro de Ninos recently used a $30,000 state grant to buy new books and to give the center a much-needed makeover. Private donations supplement state money. Alma Luevano of East L.A. is grateful. Consistent day care for her children has given her the peace of mind to earn her associate's degree, and to work toward a career as a probation officer.

Alma Luevano:: My daughter's been here since she was nine months, now she's already two. She was potty trained at one years old, she sings her ABC's all the way through, she sings the good morning songs, she's just way out there. My son, he got a lot of help here, he was referred to his home school, which gave him an evaluation, now he gets his own speech therapy, so both of my kids have improved.

Guzman-Lopez: The Chicana founders of the Centro de Ninos set out to nurture leaders. More than three decades, that's happening, one happy child at a time.