The South Lane School District (SLSD) Early Learning Center opened the doors of “La Plaza” on April 27 for a public open house. A ribbon-cutting ceremony dedicated the newly renovated space while honoring parishioner Ana Maria Dudley for her nearly three years of decades of service to the Family Resource Center and other community-focused deeds.
Dudley is the coordinator for the Family Resource Center and also works as a community health worker for PeaceHealth in Cottage Grove.
“If you look it up in the dictionary, ‘La Plaza’ simply means ‘open space’ or ‘open area,’ but to different cultures, to our team and to families we serve, it means so much more,” South Heather said Murphy, Early Learning Administrator for the Lane School District, in the commencement address. “And we’re here today to dedicate La Plaza to Ana Maria Dudley’s vision.”
This vision included creating a space where everyone has access to services and resources in a family-friendly environment.
A plaque created for the space read, “La Plaza, a gathering place dedicated to Ana Maria Dudley, April 27, 2020. Keep having fun and know you are loved.”
Speakers at last week’s event credited Dudley with a 29-year legacy of dedication to children and families in the community. Dudley first joined the Family Resource Center at Cottage Grove in 1993 and is retiring at the end of June this year.
“It is so fitting that La Plaza opened in this time frame so that we can properly recognize your vision, your fundraising efforts and all you have contributed to the families here,” Murphy told Dudley.
The district-owned Early Learning Center is an early childhood equity fund website and is open to all in the community, charges no fees, and boasts “lower access” for its visitors’ information gathering.
“We call it an early learning center, but it’s really early learning/community services,” Murphy said. “So when families come to us, we make those connections and put them in school.”
The center is eligible for equity grants in part because of its work with the Guatemalan community of Cottage Grove.
“Because of the work we’ve been doing here over the past eight years, we’re perfectly positioned for some of these new funds that focus on justice and bridging the gap for these marginalized families,” Murphy said. “We did that work and now we’ve expanded that work. And luckily we now have the space for it.”
Various versions of the Family Resource Center have roamed various locations around the city over the past few decades.
“The dream was to have a stable place that could also grow and serve more families,” Murphy said.
The current two-story space accommodates both parents and children, so if, for example, La Plaza hosts parenting classes downstairs, the children can attend Peggy’s Primary Connection or Head Start upstairs.
The area of the center can potentially be extended to the remainder of the building, which is located at the west end of the Harrison Elementary School lot and is currently only half occupied.
“Not only is the Early Learning Center physically stable here, but the programming and investments that the Legislature has made, as well as what the federal government is doing in early childhood, all flow well into a district that is well positioned and.” positioned to support families,” Murphy said.
La Plaza on the center’s first floor was named in part in honor of Peggy Lintula, who passed away in 2016. Lintula’s commitment to early childhood education and parenting lives on at Peggy’s Primary Connection, located on the second floor of the Early Learning Center.
“At times it was difficult for the families to leave the building,” Dudley recalled of one Family Resource Center location. “We told Peggy that people in Latin America are coming to La Plaza to gather. It’s a meeting place where you talk with friends and see kids play. And so we just started this inside joke between us where she said, ‘Come on, come on, it’s already after five. Let’s go home. That’s not La Plaza.’”
Dudley and Murphy said they hope La Plaza will serve as a welcoming gathering place for families — kids can play while adults cook, share stories and learn skills.
“It’s a beautiful place and we couldn’t ask for more. We’re grateful,” Dudley said.
La Plaza also includes a fully equipped kitchen that can host cooking classes, as well as options for in-person or virtual parenting classes.
At the opening ceremony, the Yarg Foundation, PeaceHealth Medical Group, Oregon Community Foundation, Ford Family Foundation, Dr. James Harrison, PakTech and United Way of Lane County for their support of the project.
The main target group of the center ranges from families with prenatal babies to families with six or seven year olds.
“But we serve all,” said Dudley. “We have parents who no longer have young children; They have teenagers but they remember coming to the center.”
However, especially for young children, the center specializes in preparing them for kindergarten and learning in an educational environment.
Parent-child relationships can also be encouraged by giving parents space to play with their children or even teach their child to detach step by step.
“[The center] is a gateway for all families in our community,” Dudley said, echoing Murphy’s characterization of the center as a community service center. “For the kids, it gives them access to social skills by being around other kids. And for the parent or the provider, there is a place where they can meet any other parent or provider.”
This connection can be invaluable to families who may not be aware services are even available. The space doubles as a resource center and provides a gentle handoff to other community partners who can address specific needs.
“We’re a bridge into the K-12, but we provide so many supports,” Murphy said. “So when families come, maybe the Hope and Safety Alliance comes in, or maybe it’s South Lane Mental Health or DHS that helps them sign up for the Oregon Trail Card or benefits. They come here where the families have trust and then they make those connections.”
The Early Learning Center has grown from three to 24 employees in the last year and a half. As part of this, a Preschool Promise classroom serves primarily the Spanish and Mam speaking population.
Mam is a Mayan language spoken by a good portion of Cottage Grove’s Guatemalan population. Interpreters and translators are extremely rare and having this skill on staff is a major capital gain for the Centre.
The center also provides a space for adults to observe their children in social situations. The Ages and Stages Questionnaire, a screening tool for children up to age five that helps educators and healthcare professionals identify developmental needs, can sometimes be part of these observations.
“That’s something I think we’re doing wonderfully at the center,” Dudley said. “When you see your child playing with other children, this window opens to see where they are in their development and we can work on their developmental skills.”