What can happen when a community cares and cares
An unusual child development and educational service, the Consortium for Children's Services Inc., operates out of an equally unusual headquarters here: an 1834 former "double-ender" canal loft structure (openings on both canal and street sides).
Once a warehouse for goods transported into and out of the city via the Erie Canal (which after 1925 became Erie Boulevard in Syracuse), the four-story building in the downtown Hanover Square area, a preservation district, might now be called a "quadruple-ender," for through it flow goods and services for four vital "markets" -- family day care homes, homes of families-at-risk, children's local history projects, and public forums on child needs.
The building also houses a thriving crafts shop. Associated with the Federation of Women's Exchanges, the shop provides an outlet for more than 200 crafts people and generates funds for the consortium's four-lane enterprise.
The organization involves about 100 volunteers including retired professional and business women, teen-agers, teachers, young parents, grandmothers, social workers, and crafts people. Its 30-member board includes educators, mental health and church workers, retired teachers. And two businessmen.
They all became involved because of their concern for inner-city children with needs not being met by existing agencies.
These needs were first perceived by a community-minded public school drama teacher, Mary Lynch. She talked up the idea of opening a crafts shop in downtown Syracuse and using the proceeds to help meet the children's needs.
A number of community and church groups, social workers and school personnel, and agencies such as the Onondaga County Health Department responded. From this loose coalition emerged the first working committee of about 25 women who decided to rent the old canal building from the Department of Community Development at $1 a month.
Next, they obtained donations of paint, carpeting, desks, display cabinets, typewriters, a cash register, files. They did much of the settling-in work themselves, with boosts from husbands and children. Department stores donated shopping bags; one even lent an accountant to help set up bookkeeping and selling procedures.
The crafts shop opened its doors in July 1973. As receipts mounted, augmented by outside funding, the consortium could move toward its service goals.
The members' interest in quality day care brought to light one area of immediate need: children in family day-care homes were without games, books, or toys; the licensed daycare mothers were thus pressed for ways to keep their "charges" busy and contented.
The consortium saw itself as a sort of school on wheels, delivering skills and materials directly to these homes. Its first wheels belonged to a van bought and maintained for a year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. It became the Magic Bus.
"A family day-care home," explained Elizabeth Higbee, the consortium's volunteer coordinator, "is an alternative to a day-care center for low-income working parents. Each home has a mother-in-charge and accommodates six children , ranging in age from six weeks to 12 years. Many of these children come from single-parent homes.
"We stocked the Magic Bus with educational toys, books, creative materials, games, and music, staffed it with an early childhood specialist, and started out.
"The bus now visits 100 family day-care homes -- some 450 children -- biweekly. Our materials are comparable to the educational programming at a child-care center. One of the most helpful resources for the mother-in-charge is the idea sheet which explains how the creative materials can be used. She of course can get further help from our worker and her aide. The bus also has a lending library."
Mrs. Higbee added, "The program has been so successful that when funds were running low, the county legislature in conjunction with the state allotted the necessary money to keep it going."
Service No. 2 developed in response to a request from a local child abuse agency for help in serving "families at risk," a term for homes in which a potential for child abuse or neglect has been identified.
The consortium acquired a second van, named it the Magic Wagon, staffed it with a team of early childhood specialists, and, stocked with appropriate materials, sent it on its way.
The Magic Wagon provides essentially the same service as that of the bus, except that it serves mothers whose own children are with them in their own homes during the day. It now visits 16 families with preschool children every week.
"In several cases," Mrs. Higbee noted, "the parents are mentally retarded. If they can read, the case worker gives them the idea sheets describing simple activities and actually sits down with parent and child and goes through the play and educational activities with them.
"At one of these homes," she said, "the workers found a three-year-old boy who wouldn't talk or even smile. his mother, the only parent in the home, watched the television most of the time."
Since visiting there regularly for six months, the wagon team reports encouraging signs of change. The mother now decorates the walls with the art work and crafts her little boy does. She sits with him to work on puzzles, and has even asked for books to be left.
The little boy now talks a bit, and is smiling a lot. And his mother is discovering how enjoyable it is to spend time with her child.
"A prime value of this program" Mrs. Higbee emphasized, "is in raising the self-esteem of the parents, which in turn creates a better home atmosphere for their children."
Service No. 3, the Historython, aims to make local history come alive for children of all ages.
One of its chief attractions goes on foot --walking tours to historic city landmarks. So far, 300 children, teachers, and volunteers have happily hoofed it around town to see and savor their historical heritage. In turn, Historython has brought the past to some 4,000 elementary schoolchildren through dramas and slide shows of historical places in Onondaga County.
Further, it has compiled a resource book of local historymaking people and places that is now a permanent part of the city school system's social studies curriculum.
Service No. 4 resulted from the consortium's awareness of an "urgent need for better communication among parents, educators, administrators, and service providers regarding child development in our society." In April 1977 it staged the first in its public forum series, "The Care of the Young in the 70s."
That same year consortium members got some unsettling news. Their rented building had a potential buyer.
With chracteristic dispatch they launched a campaign to raise $150,000 and bought the building themselves. While renovation went on, they worked for nine months out of a rented building across the street to assure uninterrupted flow of "goods and services." In 1978 they put on two more forums and another in 1979 .
All four scheduled speakers and educators with child-need expertise from Cornell, Harvard, and Tufts Universities and Odyssey House in New York City. Planning for the 1981 forum program, "The Adolescent," is under way.
Meanwhile, back at the building, volunteers have continued sawing, hammering, and painting as well as tending the crafts shop.
"Volunteers have contributed $33,000 in 'sweat equity' and will play a big part in further improvements," said Mrs. Higbee. "Shop sales have increased $10 ,000 annually and net income has risen correspondingly. We expect the shop's continued success to lead to our financial self-sufficiency."
She also feels that buying and restoring the building "has given us a perfect opportunity to practice what we preach about the value of our local historical heritage. We are committed to preserving the historic integrity of the building. It is on the National Register of Historic places. And when the building is fully paid for and restored, it will also be a physically prominent symbol of our community's concern for our children."