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ON ISLAND

The Family Center
The Early Childhood Program of MV Community Services

by Amelia Smith

In playgroups at the Family Center, children wheel around the room, scooting, crawling, and running. Their younger siblings nap or watch from their mother's arms. In one corner, children dig in a sandbox while adults sit nearby, ready with warnings about not throwing sand. Others glue and paint at tables set up for art projects. There's a rack of dress-up clothes, a climbing structure, blocks, a train set, and a corner full of books – a whole world of new toys to explore. It can get noisy.

Meanwhile, the parents, grandparents, and babysitters have a chance to talk to each other. “It's a place for parents to come so they're not isolated,” says Debbie Milne, Program Director of Martha's Vineyard Community Services' Early Childhood programs. “It's really about making connections with other families.” For many, that begins with the Baby's First Year, a conversation group for parents with babies under a year old. Marney Toole, Family Network/Family Services Coordinator, leads the group, which begins with a check in about each participant's highs and lows for the week.

Cherish Harris began attending the Family Center when her first child was born in 2005. For the past three years, she's worked as the Family Center Coordinator. “Baby's First Year has had a significant impact on a number of families every year,” Cherish says. “It gives them much-needed support in the first year of being a parent.”

These two programs, the open playgroup and Baby's First Year, form the foundation of the Family Center's programing, which also includes parent education classes (with free dinner and child care), playgroups in parks, and a swap shop for children's clothes and toys. The Family Center is funded by grants from the MA Dept of Early Education and Care and the Children's Trust Fund. A key aspect of these programs is that they're completely open – there's no cost to the families, and no screening for eligibility.

“When we started, we had a playgroup down at Woodside Village, and Baby's First Year in the board room at Community Services,” Marney recalls. “The kids had a great time. We realized that parents of young children can become really isolated.” Two years later, the center opened in its current location at the high school. Since then, it has worked as a child care lab space for the high school's vocational programs, as well as a resource for families, but the high school's needs have changed in recent years, and they now need the space for other classrooms. The Family Center's lease runs out this summer.

Fortunately, a new space was found. The center will be moving to the old Nathan Mayhew Seminars in Vineyard Haven. Cherish, Marney, and Debbie are excited about the possibilities of the new space. “The thing that amazes me about this program from the beginning is how many people had to work together, and how no one put up any roadblocks,” says Debbie Milne. “There's a lot of people working in the same direction on the move to Nathan Mayhew, working together to make it happen.” Marney praised the Nathan Mayhew Seminars' all-volunteer board: “I really think they're doing a great job and I'm glad they think we work with their mission.” Cherish is pleased that the new center will be just down the street from the Vineyard Haven Library.

Through the move, and settling into the new space, the Family Center will continue to fulfill the mission of the Early Childhood Programs: “To support the growth and development of children and their families.”