Helping Westside’s forgotten

Bermudez is a Times staff writer.

Roll call came and the teacher didn’t have to say Nathan Martinez’s name twice to get him up off the carpet and at the dining table, ready for a special Thanksgiving feast.

The 23-month-old, 2 feet tall and in tiny jeans and a striped shirt, toddled over to join others for a reward of turkey slices, cranberry sauce and rolls. It was an afternoon of giving thanks after a long morning of learning.

Nathan and 31 other children read, counted ladybugs, measured rice portions and formed shapes out of Silly Putty -- activities designed to build on sensory and motor skills, math, language and more.


Each day, parents drop the youngsters off at St. Joseph Center in Venice, where they are part of an early learning program that helps struggling families across the Westside nurture their children at a low cost, or no cost at all. The relative affluence of the areas served by St. Joseph, including Santa Monica and other Westside neighborhoods, makes these families’ financial plight even more stark, the center’s staff says.

The center is one of a number of Southern California charities supported by The Times’ annual Holiday Campaign, a project of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund. St. Joseph’s early childhood programs received $20,000 from the fund this year.

Seventy percent of the families served by the 32-year-old nonprofit earn less than $18,000 a year. Many live in the surrounding neighborhoods and work low-paying jobs in the service industry. It is not uncommon for homeless families to arrive at the center’s door, seeking help after living with their children in cars or motel rooms.

“When you offer these families free child care, in some ways you ensure their housing because some can’t have both,” said Executive Director Va Lecia Adams.

St. Joseph Center’s sleek new $13.5-million building is a few blocks from the waterfront, a one-stop shop that includes the learning center, culinary classes, a food bank and affordable housing. The site opened in June after a six-year campaign that raised just over $12.5 million in private donations. The organization is still working to raise the remaining $1 million.

With the new building, St. Joseph Center consolidated some programs, previously housed at other sites. Its annual operating budget is $5.8 million. The Early Learning Center and Infant Toddler Development Center, which are about a mile from the new building, cost $882,032.

Children in the program begin streaming into its two new spacious classrooms about 7:30 a.m. Some spend up to 10 hours at the center.

“We’re the only ones that provide them with basic needs,” said program director Dina Brevdo. “We read to them, talk to them and hug them.”

A few of the children, Brevdo said, enter the bilingual program with speech delays and behavioral problems because they do not receive enough attention at home.

Toddlers from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years old gather in one room, and older kids, up to age 5, are rounded up next door. The classes are divided into a series of learning niches that revolve around science, math, computer training, writing and reading. They role-play in costumes and learn to build relationships. During afternoon naps, the little ones run around hauling blankets and pillows, helping each other make their beds.

“This is not just baby-sitting,” said Leticia Garcia Greenman, director of family services. “We’re here to foster the complete development of the child.”

The learning center matches a handful of children with each teacher and also has two mental health consultants, along with a case manager, to connect the families to public services they need.

Parents, who are required to hold a full-time job in order to participate, take part in classes to learn about nutrition and parenting.

“Parents of kids that graduate from the program come back and say we saved their lives,” Brevdo said. “They say they wouldn’t have been able to go back to school or sustain themselves in order to get the family to the next level.”