Whatcom Center for Early Learning

by Erin Malone

Editor’s Note: There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.

Twins at two years old.
Photo courtesy of Whatcom Center for Early Learning

If you have driven past the “Big Blue House” on the corner of Girard and H streets — the Bellingham location of Whatcom Center for Early Learning (WCEL) — you might have thought it’s a preschool.  

But WCEL, which has been serving Whatcom County children and families for 48 years, actually provides essential services for infants and toddlers under the age of three years old who have developmental disabilities and delays. This includes kids who need just a little boost — a speech therapist helping them learn to speak, a physical therapist who helps them learn to walk or a specialized instructor to help them learn self-soothing techniques — so they can catch up to their typically developing peers.

It also includes more intensive therapies and supports for children born with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or any number of syndromes and diagnoses that may affect the child’s development for their lifespan.

Whatcom Center for Early Learning offers home visiting (or virtual visits when in a pandemic) early intervention services. They also provide speciality classroom programs, parent supports and summer gap services for kids entering into the public schools’ Developmental Preschool programs. The best part is that all of the services are provided to families regardless of their ability to pay — eligible children are never turned away!

What Is Early Intervention?

The center’s largest program, Early Intervention, serves children who have been evaluated and found to have delays of 25 percent or greater in one or more areas of development. These areas of development include physical or fine/gross motor (reaching, rolling, crawling, and walking); cognitive (thinking, learning, problem solving); communication (talking, listening, understanding); social/emotional (playing, feeling secure and content); and adaptive or self-help skills (eating, dressing, brushing teeth). 

Utilizing a research-based service delivery model that is referred to as the “Primary Service Provider” (PSP) approach, the center meets families where they are in their parenting journey and strives to support the entire family as the foundation of success for the child. The PSP model assigns a single WCEL specialist as the primary service provider (PSP) to the child based on family priorities and the child’s developmental needs. WCEL’s team of PSPs is composed of speech-language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, and early education specialists who hold high-level educational degrees in their fields. Therapists offer routine-based support for the child’s challenges.

Each family is assigned a Family Resources Coordinator (FRC) to support the family’s basic and specific needs, to provide care coordination and post-service planning, and to help parents become comfortable advocating for their child. The team uses a consultation model to access the full range of therapists and specialists on staff. This allows families to have a centralized relationship with a provider who knows their child and family history, culture, and routines well. Research shows that the earlier therapy or treatment begins for children experiencing a developmental delay or disability, the better the outcomes. Whatever the need of a child, the team and Whatcom Center for Early Learning works with parents and caregivers to increase their abilities to enhance their child’s developmental growth and promote quality parent-child interactions and relationships.

During non-pandemic times, Whatcom Center for Early Learning offers several classroom programs for both children enrolled in early intervention services as well as their typically developing peers. Families can join outreach groups in Lynden and Ferndale which provide socialization and play opportunities for children and their parents or caregivers. Children enrolled in early intervention services have access to online support groups, parent support sessions, and specialized in-person classes that focus on the current needs of enrolled families.

When Covid-19 struck our county, WCEL pivoted in two short weeks to move early intervention therapy online and to provide the other services families were requesting. Classes moved online using Facebook LIVE and YouTube. An online parent support group called “It Takes A Village” was started with funding support from Whatcom Community Foundation and United Way of Whatcom County. Chuckanut Health Foundation gave a grant to support services for children who had turned three, but whose school district wasn’t able to provide online supports — which is where WCEL jumped in to provide a bridge and the much-needed consistency and connection for families who often found themselves in crisis.

Early Intervention Matters

According to the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, “(h)igh quality early intervention services can change a child’s developmental trajectory and improve outcomes for children, families and the community.” That is because “neural circuits, which create the foundation for learning, behavior and health, are the most flexible or ‘plastic’ during the first three years of life. Over time, they become increasingly difficult to change.”

WCEL provides all therapies and services in a “natural environment.” Typically this means meeting in the family’s home, a childcare facility, or a community setting such as a public park or at library storytime. Research shows that providing services in natural environments promotes both child learning and family capacity, and allows families to utilize the toys, foods, and resources in their child’s usual routines and that reflect their family culture. This creates opportunities to promote developmental growth through play.

In 2019-20, WCEL provided 4,637 home visits to an average of 195 children and families, 3,510 of which were virtual telehealth visits. This included 391 consultations provided by their multidisciplinary team. Between in-person classes (which ceased in mid-March) and the virtual Facebook Live classes that took their place, a total of 419 children and their caregivers were reached!

Meet the Twins

Meet twins Madison and Tyson, just one of nearly 312 families WCEL has served in the past year! These twins came to WCEL at just three months old after being born prematurely at 32 weeks with prenatal drug exposure and entering the foster care system at three weeks old. Their foster family was paired with Family Resources Coordinator Mimi and Early Education Specialist Christine to help navigate the care and support the twins would need through their first years of life.

Mom holds the twins at six weeks old while still in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
Photo courtesy of Whatcom Center for Early Learning

Madison and Tyson needed support from the whole WCEL team over their almost three years in services, including time with speech-language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, and, of course, their early education specialist and family resource coordinator. Tyson and his family worked on how to better understand and support his sensory and behavioral needs. Madison worked on her mobility with the help of her foster parents. The twins attended weekly playgroups at WCEL and participated in weekly therapy sessions in their home. And, after their first birthday, the twins were officially adopted by their foster family.

Right before the twins turned three this year, mom reenacted her photo of the first time she held both of them together in the NICU.
Photo courtesy of Whatcom Center for Early Learning

Madison was eventually diagnosed with cerebral palsy and began using a reverse walker to navigate her world independently. As they began to near age three, and graduation from the program, Madison and Tyson’s team focused on building the twin’s therapy community and access to a variety of services that would help them to thrive into the future. The twins’ adopted mom, Sarah, shared her great appreciation for WCEL. She noted that the services and reflective coaching she received helped her to build her skills to identify developmental challenges early on.

Upon exiting in 2020 at age three, both twins qualified for developmental preschool in their district. Madison is now walking independently for short distances. She always has a sparkle in her eye and she loves to play dress up with sunglasses and accessories. And, Tyson is boisterous, curious and loves playing outside (preferably in some sort of water!). The twins now access multiple therapies in the community and are doing great.

Is My Child Eligible? 

Are you familiar with the typical developmental milestones a child reaches in the first three years of life? Perhaps you are a parent or caretaker of a young child who isn’t walking or talking at the same rate as their peers? Whatcom Center for Early Learning is here to help when parents or pediatricians have questions about a child’s development in those first few years.

If you are having concerns about your child’s development, parents can self-refer by calling SEAS at 360-715-7485. The SEAS line offers access to services to children ages birth to 21 who need specialized support and can help determine what resources in Whatcom County would be best for families and children. For more information regarding early intervention services and WCEL’s programs, please visit their website (www.wcel.net) or their Facebook page (search for WCELKids).

Erin Malone is a graduate of Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College and has been working at Whatcom Center for Early Learning for nearly a decade. Working in partnership with our county’s public schools and with WWU to promote educational opportunities for students to learn about early intervention, she also coordinates the center’s annual gala, campaigns and events.

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