By Tammy Patterson, Vice President of Children & Family Services, Westmoreland Community Action
Counting cubes and safety scissors and whiteboards, oh my! Those may all sound like standard classroom items, but for young learners in Westmoreland County and across the region, they made all the difference during virtual learning.
At Westmoreland Community Action, we help neighbors through housing programs, emergency services, mental health programs, workforce development programs and more. In my focus, we work on getting children ages three to five ready for kindergarten. That includes screenings for hearing, vision, nutrition, mental health and disabilities – all to ensure kids, and their families, are ready to start school at their fullest potential.
Like so many across the region, our families were heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Issues with access to technology were preventing children from attending our virtual programs while parents were struggling to meet basic needs and put food on the table. As they turned to us for help, we turned to United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and our other community partners.
Westmoreland Community Action received COVID relief funding to provide tablets and distribute emergency food boxes, which provided tremendous relief for our families, but we then identified that the kids weren’t actively engaging in online learning. It’s understandable that three- to five-year-olds can only tolerate so much Zooming but we knew we had to do something to keep their attention so they didn’t fall off course.
Hands-on activities are crucial for children, touching and doing are how they learn and experience the world. Our teachers purged their classrooms to share supplies and activities with parents, but the shelves were soon empty and there wasn’t enough to go around. It was a saving grace when the team at United Way offered 1,000 learning kits to our families.
The kits, packed by caring volunteers, were designed to help support early literacy, numeracy and social/emotional learning. Each kit included counting cubes, magnetic letters, a magnetic whiteboard, dry erase markers, Play-Doh, safety scissors and four books to help build the child’s in-home library.
The support these kits provided to our students, parents and teachers cannot be understated. Since every child had the same tools, it made lesson planning easier for teachers. The kids were excited to have these new items and couldn’t wait to show off what they’d learned after each session. And parents? They saw that their kids were enjoying school again and were grateful to have these supplies at home.
I knew we’d struck gold when one parent shared a special story with me. During the day, she watched as her son laughed, chatted and completed a project during his virtual class. Later, when her husband returned home from work, their son yelled out in excitement and simply could not wait to show his dad what he had learned. That’s the key to what the learning kits provided; they’ve given our students the tools to find joy in learning. And that is priceless.
Including the 1,000 kits we received, more than 3,000 learning kits were distributed throughout the region to support young learners. We are so grateful to United Way and the funders who made this work possible: Richard King Mellon Foundation, Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, The Grable Foundation, and Greensburg Foundation Fund/The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County.
We may not be sure what tomorrow brings, but I know we can face it together. If we keep showing up for our region’s children, they won’t miss a beat. If you have a child aged three to five in Westmoreland County and need help, contact Westmoreland Community Action today.