RALEIGH, N.C. – Laurie Perry sits cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by a crowd of rapt preschoolers.
“Five pretty Valentines waiting at the store,” she says. “Kenyon bought one, and then there were…”
“Four!” cry the children, while three-year-old Kenyon beams at the recognition.
With their enthusiastic answer, the children show they are taking a big step toward future success in the school system.
Wee Care, a nonprofit preschool program founded in 2007, aims to level the playing field for children from low-income families who don’t have the academic resources available to many others in their age group.
“There’s an entrance test they have to take when they go to kindergarten, just basic things like knowing their letters and cutting in a straight line,” says Perry, founder and executive director of Wee Care. “Some of these kids had no idea how to do these things before they came here.”
During her six years as a teacher in the Wake County school system, Perry noticed the same children came in with recurring problems. Usually, they were children from the low-income southeast part of Raleigh.
“I kept thinking, ‘Someone has to do something,'” she says. “You can’t wait until kindergarten, because, and I hate to say this, but it’s too late then.”
Perry and Ellen Safrit, co-directors of Children’s Ministries at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, decided to start Wee Care as a way to make the most of children’s formative years.
Wee Care received its 501(c)3 status in December 2007, and set up operations in a room it leases from the church. It currently serves nine three-year-olds who began the program last year at age two.
These children will remain in the program through next year, after which they will make the transition to kindergarten and a new group of two-year-olds will come in to take their place.
The group meets Tuesdays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. in a vibrant yellow room covered with murals, drawings and shelves piled high with books and puzzles.
The program’s holiday schedule generally conforms to the Wake County schools’ calendar, with the exception of two week-long camps that Wee Care offers at the beginning and end of the summer break.
The children spend their time at Wee Care listening to stories, painting, playing dress-up, enjoying outdoor playtime and eating two nutritious meals provided by volunteers.
“We want to teach them to love to learn, and learn to love,” Perry says.
Though two of the children speak only Spanish at home, it has not presented a problem for Perry and Safrit.
“We just expose them to the English language, which is really what they need,” Perry says.
Wee Care, with an annual budget of $58,000, receives most of its funding from individual donors.
However, it also has received a number of grants, including $5,000 from the Junior League of Raleigh, $2,500 from RBC Centura and $1,825 from the North Carolina Community Foundation.
The church’s women’s circle, the Redwood Group, Bandwidth and Pullen Baptist Church also have contributed.
The nonprofit’s 10-member board includes an elementary school principal, a pediatrician and an associate minister, among others.
Wee Care recruits children with the help of Trinity Pellas, Communities in Schools coordinator for Hunter Elementary School in southeast Raleigh. Pellas helps notify qualified and interested parents, who then spread the word to friends and family members, Perry says.
To make participation in the program more convenient for parents, Perry and Safrit provide a van service that picks up and drops off the children every day.
They also send children home with books and toys on occasion, and even offer assistance to some of their families during Christmas.
“Their world is not always very trusting,” Perry says. “If we have that [trust] established in their lives, they’re more comfortable and ready to learn.”
To help the children build trust and learn to interact with others, Wee Care takes them on field trips to local parks, zoos and farmers’ markets.
The children celebrated Valentine’s Day with a trip to the Build-A-Bear Workshop on Feb. 12. With financial support from individual sponsors, the children took home new teddy bears they designed themselves.
Perry and Safrit accompanied the children on a trip to Nofo, a local restaurant, in spring of last year.
“They were all so well-behaved, the staff said we could come back any time,” Safrit says.
The children’s confidence and friendly demeanors are not just reserved for special occasions, Perry says. Any time new people enter their classroom, the children immediately invite them to join in the fun.
“You can’t not play,” she jokes. “It’s not allowed.”