Rising Above

Step Up Ventura gives homeless kids a boost in learning and life.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by David Kerrigan

FIRST STEPS: Two-year-old Isaac Aguiar Jr. was one of the first students to participate in the Step Up Ventura program.


 new nonprofit called Step Up Ventura is providing free child care and preschool to homeless children five years old and younger. The mission: “to promote family stability and school success by providing accessible therapeutic child care and preschool to homeless children who oft times are challenged by their parents’ peripatetic and often unstable lifestyle.” The organization helps infants, toddlers and young children develop secure attachments and overcome the traumas they have faced, while the program offers “nurturing, calming, and appropriately stimulating activities” throughout the day, with specially trained early-childhood educators, caregivers and mental health workers.

Operating out of Magic Carousel Preschool and Academy (originally in Midtown Ventura; the program will be moving to the East Ventura site in November), which recently started accepting Step Up Ventura kids, the program offers a happy, productive, safe haven for kids to interact with their peers and learn.

A Crucial Stage

Early childhood, from birth to 8 years, is a time of remarkable growth, with brain development at its peak. During this stage children are highly influenced by the environment and the people who surround them. Early childhood care and education (ECCE) is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing. It can promote human resource development, gender equality and social cohesion, and reduce the costs of remedial programs. 

ECCE also plays an important role in compensating for the disadvantages and combating educational inequalities that can plague vulnerable populations. According to Step Up Ventura’s website, homeless children are at risk for developmental delays (which can interfere with kindergarten readiness), illness, mental health issues and attachment and relationship problems, which can cause problems in and out of school. Step Up Ventura was created to provide the kind of ECCE that can help minimize those risks.

A Critical Need

There are services in Ventura for the homeless, but a program was needed for young children who are often shuffled around while parents try to obtain services, seek employment, find housing or just deal with day-to-day needs. 

Step Up Ventura Board President Judy Alexandre created a task force to determine what could be done to help these children get a “step up” in life. After speaking to other people and agencies in Ventura, Step up Ventura was launched with the goal of providing quality child care to these families, so parents could go to work, go to school and eventually become self-sufficient. 

It’s been a curvy road from dream to realization. The nonprofit was incorporated at the end of 2014 and just welcomed its first family in September 2017. It took time to build a donor base and identify grants that fund new projects. There were stumbles along the way.

“Originally, we rented space elsewhere, but it didn’t meet state licensing requirements,” noted Program Director Mary O. Kerrigan. Networking through a women’s support group, she met a woman connected to the school system who knew Dr. Marcella White, the owner/director of Magic Carousel Preschool and Academy. Dr. White expressed interest in collaborating.

“I decided to collaborate with Step up Ventura because I am a true child’s advocate and I wanted to be a voice for the ones who cannot speak for themselves,” White explained. “I come from a background filled with hardship and I wanted to be the one that gave another the opportunity to have a better life. Because child care is what I do best, I could not only help these families, but also their children, by providing them with a safe and stable place to be.”

Stability = Trust

Kerrigan clarified that “homeless” isn’t necessarily defined as living on the streets. The term applies to those in transitional housing, and includes families who may be living in a shelter, in a car or RV, or even in motels — any type of unstable housing situation.

“It’s traumatic not to have stable housing,” stressed Kerrigan, a clinical social worker who spent 30 years specializing in attachment and trauma before moving to Ventura with her husband from Washington, D.C., three years ago. “When a child is experiencing homelessness and being moved from one place to another, or their routine is disrupted, the brain puts a lot of energy into figuring out what’s going on! People really thrive on consistency and predictability. That’s what forms trust. It’s important for children to feel love, feel trust and to trust the people taking care of them as well.”

Making the Connection

How do homeless parents learn about Step Up? Some are informed by workers from transitional housing programs in Ventura County, others via public health nurses and social workers. School counselors refer if they learn of little ones in need from an older sibling. Parents must either be working full time, going to school full time or a combination of the two to qualify. Step Up seeks those who are “trying to get ahead and be self-sufficient” and are working toward stable housing.

Step Up Ventura also requires parental involvement. After an assessment that explores relationships and developmental stage, Step Up staff work with the parents and the children to provide ideas for activities to help pre-literacy and pre-math skills. 

The children attend class at Magic Carousel, which provides the child care and teachers; Step Up Ventura trains the teachers in how to deal with risk factors, including attachment disruptions and trauma needs. The program is being “cautiously” launched and accepting children aged 18 months to 5 years of age, with plans to house infants in the future. It is open 6 a.m.-6 p.m., five days a week, so parents can go to work and/or school. At the time of this writing, there were 15 openings available.

“We need children,” Kerrigan concluded. “Some of our preschool services can be applied for through the county voucher system, but the waiting list is long and many families are not getting vouchers. We want to help them now.”

Building a Bright Future

These early years are a critical time for young brains, and healthy stimulation can mean success later on.

“Research shows that a human brain changes in the first three years more than at any other time of life,” Kerrigan said. “This is a time of enormous learning — not only of language and math skills, but environment. Also colors, social skills and how a child soaks up that information. A lack of stimulation can stunt or delay brain growth. When a family ends up being homeless and are moving from place to place and there’s unstable housing, a child is greatly affected when their environment doesn’t stay the same.” 

Again, Kerrigan cited the experts: “Research has shown that early childhood education is essential and so important. It sets the basic foundation for the brain to learn later in elementary and high school years. You can’t learn without a foundation. The brain takes in so much information. A lot of people don’t realize that brain development is first about social skills — expressing emotions, reading emotions and understanding social relationships. Feeling, trust and caring are also important.”

With that in mind, Step Up offers more than just books, toys and instruction. The program offers security in a safe place and, perhaps most importantly, love.

Step Up Ventura

PLAY TIME: Program Director Mary Kerrigan has some fun with 2.5-year-old Quetzalli Hermasillo at Magic Carousel. “It’s important for children to feel love, feel trust and to trust the people taking care of them as well,” says the clinical social worker. .


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