Early Learning Center’s ‘La Plaza’ celebrates new space

Ana Maria Dudley (center left) and Lesly Canalas (center right) cut the ribbon at a ceremony last Wednesday, opening La Plaza for a community open house.

The South Lane School District’s (SLSD) Early Learning Center opened the doors of “La Plaza” to a public open house on April 27. A ribbon-cutting ceremony christened the newly-renovated space while honoring community member Ana Maria Dudley for her nearly three decades of service to the Family Resource Center and other community-oriented deeds.

Dudley is coordinator for the Family Resource Center and is also 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 several cultures, to our team and to families that we serve, it means so much more,” said South Lane School District Early Learning Administrator Heather Murphy in opening remarks. “And we are here today to dedicate La Plaza to the vision of Ana Maria Dudley.”

That vision involved creating a space where all could have access to services and resources in a family-welcoming environment.

A plaque created for the space read, “La Plaza, a gathering place dedicated to Ana Maria Dudley, April 27 2022. Keep having fun and know that you are loved.”

Speakers at last week’s event credited Dudley with a 29-year legacy of commitment to children and families in the community. Dudley first came to the Family Resource Center in Cottage Grove in 1993 and is retiring at the end of June this year.

“It’s so appropriate that La Plaza opened in this timeframe so that we could appropriately honor your vision, your fundraising efforts and all that you’ve contributed to families here,” said Murphy to Dudley.

An early childhood equity fund site, the school district-owned Early Learning Center is open to anyone in the community, charges no fees and boasts a “low-barrier” entry in terms of information gathering of its visitors.

“We call it the Early Learning Center, but it’s really early learning/community services,” said Murphy. “So as families come to us, we’re making those connections and bridging them into school.”

The center qualifies for equity grants in part because of the work it does with Cottage Grove’s Guatemalan population.

“Because of the work we’ve been doing here for eight years, we are just perfectly poised for some of these new funds which are focusing on equity and bridging the gap for those marginalized families,” explained Murphy. “We’ve been doing that work and now we’ve expanded that work. And luckily, we have the space to do it now.”

Over the past several decades, versions of the Family Resource Center have ping-ponged to various locations around town.

“The dream was having a stable spot that could also grow and serve more families,” said Murphy.

The current two-story space accommodates parents and children in such a way that, if parenting classes are being conducted downstairs in La Plaza, for instance, children can attend Peggy’s Primary Connection or Head Start upstairs.

The center’s space can potentially expand out to the rest of the building, which rests on the west end of Harrison Elementary School property and only half of which is being used currently.

“The Early Learning Center is not only physically stable here, but the programming and the investment that the legislature has made, as well as what the federal government is making in early childhood, is all trickling down nicely to a district that is well poised and positioned to support families,” said Murphy.

La Plaza, located on the first floor of the center, was named in part to honor Peggy Lintula, who passed away in 2016. Lintula’s dedication to early education and parenting lives on in Peggy’s Primary Connection, which is located on the second floor of the Early Learning Center.

“Sometimes it was hard for the families to leave the building,” Dudley recalled of a Family Resource Center location. “We told Peggy that in Latin America, people come to La Plaza to gather. It’s a gathering place where you talk to you see friends and children play. And so we just started this inside joke among ourselves where she’d say, ‘Come on, come on, it’s already past five o’clock. Let’s go home. This is not La Plaza.’”

Dudley and Murphy said they hope La Plaza will serve as a welcoming gathering place for families – children can play while adults cook, share stories and learn skills.

“It’s a beautiful space and we couldn’t ask for anything more. We’re grateful,” said Dudley.

La Plaza also includes a full kitchen, where cooking classes can be held, as well options for in-person or virtual parenting classes.

At the ribbon cutting ceremony, the Yarg Foundation, PeaceHealth Medical Group, the Oregon Community Foundation, Ford Family Foundation, Dr. James Harrison, PakTech and United Way of Lane County were thanked for their sponsorship of the project.

The center’s main target audience ranges from families with prenatal infants to those with six- or seven-year-olds.

“But we serve everybody,” said Dudley. “We have parents that don’t have young children anymore; they have teenagers, but they remember coming to the center.”

For young children in particular, though, the center specializes in prepping them for kindergarten and learning in an educational environment.

The parent-child relationships, too, can be fostered as parents are given a space to play with their children or even teach their child detachment in a gradual manner.

“[The center] is a port of entry for all families in our community,” said Dudley, echoing Murphy’s characterization of the center as a community service hub. “For the children, it gives them access to social skills, being with other children. And for the parents or the providers, it gives them a place where they can meet all the other parents or providers.”

That networking can be invaluable for families who may not be aware that services are even available. Doubling as a resource center, the space provides a gentle handing-off to other community partners who can address specific needs.

“We’re a bridge into K-12, but we offer so many supports,” Murphy said. “So when families come in, maybe Hope and Safety Alliance also comes in or maybe it’s South Lane Mental Health, or DHS helping them sign up for Oregon Trail Card or benefits. They come here where the families have trust, and then they make those contacts.”

The Early Learning Center has scaled up from a staff of three to 24 in the past year and a half. As part of that, a Preschool Promise classroom largely serves 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 exceedingly rare and having that skill on the staff is major equity win for the center.

The center also provides a space where adults can observe their children in social situations. The Ages and Stages Questionnaire, a screening tool for children up to five years old which helps educators and healthcare professionals identify developmental needs, can sometimes be a part of these observations.

“That’s something that I think we do beautifully at the center,” said Dudley. “Seeing your child playing with other children opens that window to see where they are developmentally and we can work on developmental skills.”

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