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Families SMILE with early childhood intervention

Roxanne Powell, Community Impact Manager for Pocono Mountains United Way, stands beside an ALICE poster at their office. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed. It describes individuals who have jobs, but are unable to afford all of their basic needs.
Isabela Weiss | WVIA News | Report for America
Roxanne Powell, community impact manager for Pocono Mountains United Way, stands beside an ALICE poster at her office. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed. It describes individuals who are above the federal poverty level, but are unable to afford their basic needs.

Families with young children can get support through an in-home mentoring program in Monroe County.

The program, SMILE, is run by Pocono Mountains United Way. Roxanne Powell, the community impact manager, explained why they focus on pre-kindergarten aged children.

“We know that the early years from birth to age five are very critical for the health and well-being for children, families, and the community,” said Powell. “Even before they reach kindergarten, we know that they have many experiences to get them ready.”

SMILE works with children facing financial difficulties, behavioral or academic problems, or traumatic experiences. They prioritize children who are on waitlists to get into daycare programs, as it puts stress on a family’s resources and limits a child’s opportunity to learn social skills from other kids.

As of March 2023, 791 children were on waitlists for daycare centers in Monroe County, according to Pocono’s United Way.

Families are not cut off from SMILE if their kids get off of a waitlist and into a daycare program. Powell said her educators can still come to the home to help children settle into their new routine.

“There’s still a huge transition period coming from the home. We keep them on board – if the parent chooses – [so] that we continue to see them in the home,” said Powell.

However, Powell emphasized that parents and guardians are their child’s first teacher. They can prepare their children for kindergarten long before classes start.

“You need to start those bedtime routines. We talk about – there’s a page in the calendar, [about] how to get ready [for kindergarten]. Those are the things we make sure [our families] are aware of, and they start that not in September,” said Powell.

Each year, the United Way creates a “Getting Ready for Kindergarten” calendar with activities geared for early childhood development. It also has a page with a list of goals for children to reach before school starts – like responding to other people’s feelings and counting to ten.

Besides handouts like the calendar, SMILE’s educators help families create individualized plans for each child. Powell highlighted one skill her educators teach above all other skills: attention span.

“A lot of the things they work on is giving a child a book, and they need to go and sit in whatever area of the home they like to look at a book in, and be able to do that on their own. Not being entertained,” said Powell. “The teacher needs to see that they have some sort of an attention [span,] because they feel that they can teach you. If they have your attention, you’re teachable.”

SMILE educators visit families’ homes twice a month for an hour and 30 minutes. For more information about the program, visit poconounitedway.org/education/.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.

You can email Isabella at isabelaweiss@wvia.org