At 3:00 on a cold Wednesday afternoon in Columbia Heights, sleepy eyed little boys and girls are gently woken from their naps. Mussed hair and rumpled clothes, they amble over to snack tables where healthy treats are laid out for them. It seems like a pretty typical afternoon at the Easter Seals Child Development Center, but something special is about to happen. At a few minutes past three the sound of jingle bells begin to echo through the halls. The little ones tentatively poke their heads out of the classroom door, unsure about this big man in the red suit, while chants and cheers of “Santa’s Here!!” can be heard from the pre-K classrooms. From the outside you’d never know it, but there is an awful lot of excitement inside of the non-descript brick building at 2800 13th Street.
When Jill Chimka, the Clinical Supervisor at the center invited us at PoP out to join in the holiday fun she said, “I thought maybe our neighbors might like to know more about us, rather than just our boring exterior. We really are a happy place!” I have to admit that in all the hundreds of times I have walked down 13th, past Girard Street, I’d never really taken notice of the building. But now after having paid them a visit, especially on such a fun afternoon, I can attest that Jill is correct! For those who don’t get a chance to see the inside, a recent grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development will help liven the place up. In addition to building a new classroom, the funding will allow for the center to install a security fence, which means the bars can come off the windows, a nice sign can be put up and there are plans to paint a great big mural on the side of the building.
The Easter Seals Child Development Center has stood in the same location since 1959 when it opened its doors as the first program in the DC area to provide comprehensive educational and therapeutic services to young children with disabilities. Over the course of the past 50 years the center has expanded its services, and gone through significant change. It operates today as an inclusive center for both disabled and typically developing children, and is one of only three centers in the DC area that is inclusive. Children at the center range in age from 6 weeks to 5 years and are referred by the Infants and Toddlers Program, a DC government program that issues IFSPs. Students who are referred, and are DC residents, receive free care but the center also has about 20 private pay students at this point. Continues after the jump.
Since the day that I came by was such a big day at the center, I was fortunate enough to meet the Director, Kate Jordan-Downs, as well as Jill and a few of the teachers. Kate spent some time with me chatting about her background, the center and, of course, the kids. Kate started out as a teacher, and worked at Smother’s Elementary school in NE. She recalls this as “the most challenging experience I’ve ever had, but also the most I have ever learned.” After a few years she relocated to the midwest, where she is from, and was doing some non profit work with disabled individuals. When she came back to DC she was looking for a career opportunity that married both of those experiences, and a job at the Easter Seals center turned out to be the perfect fit.
In addition to Kate, the center is staffed by Jill – the Clinical Supervisor, 18 teachers, 4 therapists, an Assistant Director and an Administrative Assistant. They also rely on a lot of volunteer support from the community and are always looking for an extra set of hands. If you’re interested in volunteering you can visit the website at www.gwbr.easterseals.com and contact the center for more info. Even though Easter Seals is a nationwide operation, the center in Columbia Heights works hard to maintain relationships with other community organizations in the neighborhood and beyond. Kate told me about volunteer partnerships with the Madeira School for Girls (in McLean, VA) and the Georgetown Medical School. The center also has a great relationships with the Greater First Baptist Church on Harvard St, and with Second Genesis, a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. Residents of that program help out with cleaning, maintenance, and janitorial work.
Most importantly, at least for the day of Santa’s visit, the center has a long standing relationship with Micheal Colella, a professional photographer who donates his time and services, and brings along his good buddy Santa Claus. Santa made his rounds to each of the classrooms, which was really one of the cutest things I have seen in a long time. A few of the little ones were a bit scared of him at first, clinging to their teachers’ (and even my) legs and slowly inching their way forward to accept a present, or give Santa a high five. The big kids couldn’t wait – and literally jumped on him when he walked through the door. Some of them even tried to give him classroom toys as gifts!
After a little while everyone was gathered into one classroom where each kid gets to sit up on Santa’s lap and have their picture taken while they get a gift, courtesy of The USA Today/Gannett Company Inc. Giving Tree Program. In addition to a gift for each child, the program also provides a full Christmas for one needy family. Mr. Colella captures all of this on film, and has photos professionally printed and delivered to each child. It was a genuinely heart-warming event and even though Christmas isn’t my holiday, I left the center that day truly feeling the Holiday Spirit.