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Jim Kenyon: In Claremont, Breaking the Cycle Once and 4-All

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

During a visit to a homeless shelter in Claremont a few years ago, Cathy Pellerin was struck — dumbfounded, actually — by the absence of books for kids.

Pellerin, a kindergarten teacher and early childhood education specialist, learned that the shelter had enacted what more or less amounted to a ban on books.

Why would it do that?

“The bindings of books can have bedbugs,” Pellerin was told. Toys were pretty much forbidden as well, although for a different reason — to prevent the spread of germs and stop kids getting injured on broken pieces.

The concerns were “legit stuff,” said Pellerin, a 1989 Stevens High School graduate who still lives in Claremont. But still, it rankled her.

Not long after, in a one-on-one chat with Middleton McGoodwin, superintendent of Claremont-based SAU 6, Pellerin let loose.

“We expect these children to come to kindergarten ready to learn, but some of them have never held a book,” she said. “They’ve never done a puzzle or painted.

“They have nothing. We’re setting them up for failure.”

When I asked McGoodwin about that conversation, he said, “Cathy was right. The playing field is not level. Not all children come to school with the same tools.”

Claremont had started a pre-school program that attracted about 60 youngsters. But it wasn’t reaching everyone.

So what then, McGoodwin asked Pellerin, can we do about it?

For starters, she envisioned a place where homeless parents could bring their children to play and read together.

But she also recognized a bigger need. Claremont schools have 100 or so students who are part of what’s called Families in Transition. Some are younger children from homeless families. Others are teenagers who have left home. They’re couch surfing, staying with grandparents, or living on their own.

Pellerin wanted a place where teens — some of them parents already — could go to do everything from homework to laundry. Where young parents could drop off their pre-schoolers, starting at two weeks old, to be cared for while they participated in job-training programs or took classes.

In November 2015, the “One-4-All Family Space” opened in a shuttered textile mill at the corner of Main and Elm streets, leading into downtown Claremont.

Last week during a visit I watched a mom quiz her preschool-age daughter on different shapes while two boys played sailor in a large plastic tugboat.

One of the boys was 4-year-old Peyton Stange. His mother brings him one morning a week or so to burn off energy, she said.

Suzanne Stange isn’t the typical parent who takes advantage of One-4-All’s offerings. Suzanne and her husband, Jeremy, moved to Claremont five years ago. Along with Peyton, they have an 8-year-old daughter. Her husband has a good-paying job as a bridge inspector that allows her to remain a stay-at-home mom, she said. Her son is enrolled in Claremont’s afternoon pre-school program.

“My kids are pretty privileged,” she said. “We’re lucky.”

Stange heard about One-4-All at a school activities fair and was immediately impressed. “It’s well-structured and the kids are well-behaved,” she said. “It’s good for me, too. I get to socialize with other parents.”

Just what Pellerin likes to hear. Parents such as Stange help make the program more economically and socially diverse. They’re role models for teen moms.

“We’re trying to break the cycle that you hear about in Claremont,” said Pellerin. The cycle of teen pregnancy — 16-year-old moms and 32-year-old grandmothers — that prevents families from getting ahead.

Pellerin walked around the large playroom with an infant in her arms. Sam Torres, an early childhood education specialist who works with Pellerin, sliced fresh strawberries into tiny pieces for a half-dozen preschoolers sitting around a table at morning snack time.

Behind a closed door in another room, a pregnant teen, whose due date is this week, sprawled out on a couch with her laptop, doing schoolwork.

In the main room, Morgan LaClair, 18, was dropping off her 6-month-old daughter, Oaklyn. LaClair, who had quit high school but returned to earn her diploma after her daughter was born, is now enrolled at nearby River Valley Community College. On this morning, she was meeting with a tutor.

LaClair, who lives with her grandparents, is studying to become an early childhood education specialist. I asked if that would have something to do with the influence of Pellerin and Torres.

She nodded. “I go to them for everything.”

A strength of One-4-All, McGoodwin said, is that it’s “not only helping little kids, but also helping young adults finish school.”

So who’s paying for this?

It’s a shoestring operation, but Pellerin and school officials recognized hitting up local property taxpayers in financially strapped Claremont wasn’t feasible.

Federal and state grants needed to be a staple. Pellerin turned to private foundations to buy furniture and build an outdoor playground. Claremont businesses provide free snacks, bottled water for the teen room. Willing Hands, a Lebanon-based nonprofit food distributor, drops off fresh fruit and vegetables.

Before leaving, I got a tour. There’s a kitchen where teens take cooking classes. There’s an elevated fenced-in platform where toddlers crawl around on the carpet without getting run over by preschoolers.

And there’s a nap room where a lullaby played on a cassette recorder. Next to the cribs: a rocking chair and a well-stocked children’s bookcase.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.