When Mission Promise Neighborhood lead agency MEDA was looking for honorees for its ¡VIVA MEDA! 43rd Anniversary Celebration slated for October 12, Executive Director Sam Ruiz of Mission Neighborhood Centers (MNC) immediately came to mind. MNC’s numbers for 2015-2016 are quite impressive, with 54 infants and toddlers receiving Early Head Start and 387 preschool children receiving Head Start services throughout the community-based organization’s 11 sites in San Francisco. Ruiz showcases the vision and leadership needed to drive home the equity agenda in San Francisco, thereby contributing to the success of the Mission Promise Neighborhood partnership.
That vision has most recently translated to Centro de Alegría, a Spanish bilingual preschool center located at 1245 Alabama Street. The former St. Peter’s convent – vacant for two decades — was converted into a brand-new preschool that opened this month, answering the prayers of many Mission parents. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a now-retired nun who had resided at the convent showed up for the celebration, expressing her joy that the church’s mission to serve children was now being fulfilled by Centro de Alegría.
The idea was to centralize MNC’s critical early care and education and social services for low-income families. MNC now offers three classrooms to serve 88 neighborhood children: two double session part days for 68 children; and a third classroom that will support 20 children for the full day with a tuition/subsidized combination strategy. Centro de Alegría consolidates two former MNC locations, one on Precita Avenue and the other at Harrison and 24th streets.
Centro de Alegría, which means Joy Center, will even house staff offices, rooms for confidential case management and ample outdoor space designed to utilize the natural world as a learning tool.
“Centro de Alegría was a two-year labor of love. The entire first floor of the convent had to be gutted. The result is a state-of-the-art facility for our familias — about 85 percent immigrants seeking a better life,” explains MNC Division Director of Children’s Services Dolores Terrazas. MNC kept the chapel for the priests, now next-door neighbors.
Centro de Alegría was made possible by a variety of funders, including the Office of Head Start Region IX, Low Income Investment Fund, Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, the Herbst Foundation, Tides Foundation, San Francisco Foundation, the Mimi and Peter Haas Family Fund, Dignity Health and CPMC/Sutter Health.
These funders lent their support because they knew of the major need for such a comprehensive center in the Mission, and that MNC has a proven track record of almost six decades of strengthening families. Liz Cortez, Mission Promise Neighborhood Early Learning Manager states, “There is an unmet need for services in our community, this is the difference between the amount of children that would qualify for subsidized care and the actual capacity in the community to serve these children.” In 2012, for example, there were 629 infants and toddlers that qualified for subsidized care but there was no capacity to serve them. Currently, the SF3C or city-wide centralized eligibility list for families that qualify for a subsidy shows 350 children ages 0-5 waiting for early care and education services in the Mission.
MNC’s goal is that Centro de Alegría will provide the means to ensuring that children from habitually under-resourced communities enter kindergarten on a level playing field with kids from more affluent neighborhoods. Employing the two-generation approach that is an integral piece of the work model of the Mission Promise Neighborhood, the new preschool will offer family resources running the gamut from computer classes to an on-site therapist.
“Our families are looking for an environment that’s culturally and linguistically appropriate. Centro de Alegría is that place,” states an exuberant Terrazas.
Mission Promise Neighborhood Early Learning Manager Liz Cortez knows of the need for such early care and education services. Cortez explains, “MNC has been growing their programs to meet the needs of families with young children. For example, the MNC Early Head Start program that serves infants and toddlers and their families has grown from three slots in 2006 to 66 slots in 2016. This is a 2,100-percent growth rate in the last 10 years. Amazing.”
This kind of growth in services for families with young children could not have happened without the committed leadership of MNC staff and the funders that support this work. Families agree that this is a place that supports them to achieve their dreams: In a 2015 exit survey of families served, 99 percent reported satisfaction with MNC programs and services.
Now that’s a valuable community asset!
About Mission Promise Neighborhood
The Mission Promise Neighborhood is a citywide community partnership that was created to support kids and families living, working and attending school in the Mission District. It brings together schools, colleges, community organizations and community leaders to help kids graduate and families achieve financial stability.