by Becky Christner and Tina Magrabi
Miss Mara lifts up Sylvia, twirling her around and exclaiming, “You look so beautiful today! Did you get your hair done special?” Dressed in blue jeans and a hot pink t-shirt with a heart emblazoned on the front, Sylvia proudly pats her updo hairstyle. Mara Cohen, a former music teacher with three children of her own, shares a natural rapport with the toddler.
Affectionately known as “Teacher” or “Miss Mara,” the Parent-Child Home Program (PCHP) home visitor animatedly begins the session, which features popular children’s book “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” Sylvia’s mother, Kyisha, actively participates in the session, sitting next to her daughter and encouraging her to stay focused. As Miss Mara guides Sylvia through each page of the book, she artfully uses rich verbal language and encourages robust verbal interaction between Kyisha and Sylvia. Mara will expand on this thirty-minute session at the next visit scheduled two days from today. When Sylvia graduates from the program, she will have received two years of home visits to help prepare her for school.
A week shy of her third birthday, Sylvia is one of the shining stars of PCHP, a program spearheaded in the Nyack school district by Valley Cottage’s Family Resource Center coordinator Julie Kassel. Enrolled in the program since September 2015, Sylvia has made great strides in learning to count, identifying colors, naming animals, predicting what will happen next in stories, and increasing her vocabulary. “She absorbs everything much more. She’s a sponge,” Mara says when describing improvements in Sylvia’s verbal skills. Sylvia demonstrates her burgeoning vocabulary throughout the session, at one point perfectly enunciating every syllable of the word “hippopotamus.” Among Sylvia’s favorite learning tools are colored blocks that teach problem-solving skills and serve as an introduction to mathematics. Sylvia also frequently requests to reread one of her favorite books, “Pat the Bunny,” a whimsical story that nurtures early literacy skills.
Mara believes that Sylvia has the potential to “soar” and can offer hope to other children in the community. Ultimately, Sylvia and other children in Nyack simply need resources like PCHP to succeed. (A hot-off-the-press research study shows that PCHP graduates are more ready for kindergarten and perform better in third grade than their peers.) The raw materials, like intellect and enthusiasm, are already there.
Since Sylvia started PCHP, Kyisha has lost count of how many times Sylvia has spoken the magic words: “Mommy, I’ll read it!” According to Kyisha, “The program has intensified Sylvia’s learning. She’s very independent and confident now. And Miss Mara makes learning fun.” However, Mara is quick to deflect attention from herself and gives a tremendous amount of credit to Kyisha for fostering Sylvia’s progress. “She’s absolutely committed and dedicated to the program,” Mara says of Kyisha, who balances the rigors of motherhood with a job that requires regular overnight shifts. Mara’s primary focus as home visitor is to build a meaningful relationship with Kyisha that supports her in appreciating her role as Sylvia’s first and most important teacher, empowering her to lead Sylvia on the path to school success.
“Kissies! Huggies!” Sylvia calls to Miss Mara as she heads toward her car at the end of the visit. Obligingly, Miss Mara rushes back and warmly embraces the beaming girl before waving goodbye. For Mara, though, the work doesn’t end there. She will prepare a detailed progress report to submit to her supervisor, attend a weekly team meeting, and plan her next home visit.
Currently, the program has a waiting list of fifteen with the potential to reach many more families as its volunteer corps grows. PCHP stands strong to enrich the lives of countless promising children like Sylvia. If you are interested in volunteering for this highly rewarding program, call Nyack PCHP at: 845-353-7291 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Becky Christner is Interim Rockland 21C Administrator. Tina Magrabi is a writer living and working in the tristate area. This article was originally published in Rockland 21C.