Aimee Santiago is a Chicago native and mother of two children, 3-year-old Emiliano and 5-year-old Tlanextli. She had tried for four to five months to find a preschool for her oldest child.
There was a waiting list. She and her husband qualify financially for a local program but if she got a raise at work, she would not.
Then she found Christopher House, a catalyst for helping at risk children from birth to age 18, in Logan Square.
“My kids have learned so much from there, more than what I could ever teach them,” Santiago, 35, said.
But organizations like Christopher House may face funding cuts. So Santiago decided to go with other parents to Springfield to fight for funding for early childhood education.
With Illinois’s budget woes and pending school closures, early childhood education is at an all-time risk. However, the Latino Policy Forum has been assisting and training parents, like Santiago, in public speaking so they can properly and affectively take a stand and try to persuade legislators to restore the $25 million, increase eligibility, lowering co-payment, restoring funds to the bilingual budget and maintaing funding for home visiting programs.
“It’s scary because then where are our priorities as a society? I’m not blaming the politicians because we see how our economy is,” Santiago said.
Santiago said education is the most important thing for young children and thinks they will definitely benefit from early childhood education.
“This is a win, win situation because this helps kids learn to love reading, they learn good habits. I’m talking about what I’ve seen in my children,” Santiago said.
She even sees the improvement in her children’s eating habits. Now, she said they eat everything they are given. She and her husband both attended Head Start programs when they were young and learned to eat a variety of food, so she knows first-hand about the many benefits of early childhood education.
“It’s not just education. You’re letting your children explore different things in a healthy environment,” she said.
According to research by James Heckman, an American economist from Chicago, early education for disadvantaged children comes with great benefits that include, but not limited to, improvements in cognitive abilities, sociability, motivation and even self esteem.
That’s what the Latino Policy Forum and parents are trying to protect.
Martin Torres, the senior policy analyst with the nonprofit, is in charge of training parents alongside his peers Cristina Pacione-Zayas, the education director, and Jacob Vigil, a policy coordinator.
“The best outcome would be to have large number of parents and families from the and that they have they would have the opportunity to share their message,” Vigil said
They went to Springfield on April 30th, and took a quick tour of the capitol before splitting up into small groups.
The parents sought out members of the Appropriations Committee in the House and Senate who oversee the specific budgets that determine funding for early childhood development, according to Torres.
Each group reached one if not two legislators to share their individual story and talk about their goals for early childhood development. The parents even had a sheet of responses if legislators told them their hands were tied and asked where they would cut or take the money from.
“What was great, I was with a group of moms from Christopher House, in Logan Square, and one of them was just really motivated and kept on asking me ‘What more can we do? What can I do?’” Pacione-Zayas said, “It was good to connect with parents on that level, who wanted to continue to work on their own.”
Santiago was glad to see she wasn’t the only parent who felt so passionately about the issue. She saw how other mothers came out of their shell and were confident enough to tell their story to the legislators. Although children will learn many things in kindergarden and first grade, it won’t be the same, according to Santiago.
“You’re going to have that advantage when you go to kindergarden,” Santiago said, talking about why legislators should protect the funding for early education.
Santiago was able to meet with Rep. Cynthia Soto. She said she complimented them on the job they were doing, even going as far to say they were doing a better job at lobbying than she did when she was young. She told Santiago and the other parents before leaving that the power is in the numbers. That motivated Santiago and made her think about how educating the community can strengthen the fight to protect early childhood education.
The sense of legislators paying attention to parents like Santiago came to mind. To her, it was a sign of progress.
“My experience was awesome,” Santiago said, “It was totally worth it. It was a sense of one good cause uniting all of us from different places, different centers for our little ones.”