Reynelle Spence walks her son, 3-year-old Reysen, to a sink in a classroom at the Sheltering Arms/Educare Center in Atlanta and guides him with one arm up to the sink’s ledge.
She helps the young boy—he’s going to turn 4 this weekend—up onto a white stepstool and turns on the sink. She grabs the soap and the liquid in the bottle turns into foam as it falls out onto Reysen’s hands. “Sing your ABCs,” Reynelle says. The boy gently massages his hands together and sings the tune out loud. He finishes the song and rinses the soap and germs down the drain.
Reysen has spent the full day at Sheltering Arms, a year-round early learning program for children 6-weeks-old to 5. There are 15 total centers like this one across the Atlanta metro area. Throughout the day, he has received early learning education based off of a research-based curriculum geared toward children just like him.
He learns different concepts like numbers, counting and even his ABCs. He’s also learned to read and write a bit—he’s been sitting, eating yogurt and listening patiently to Dr. Seuss’ “Hop on Pop.” He flips a page each time the narration stops, and he hears a beep in the receiver of his headphones indicating that it’s time to turn the page.
Reynelle said her son had been at Sheltering Arms since he was 9 months old. She loved the school. Her eldest son, 10-year-old Royal, started at Sheltering Arms when he was Reysen’s age. But, Royal’s still close to his little brother now. He’s upstairs at the Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School.
“We had migrated here from Brooklyn, New York,” Reynelle says. “I had initially come down here with a buddy of mine. I was about 20-years old. I had gotten out of community college, and I didn’t have a lot going on, and I needed change.”
She was in Atlanta for “a few years” when she met Royal’s father. Reynelle eventually ended up moving back home with her oldest son to be closer to family while Royal’s father stayed in Atlanta.
But, tragedy struck. Royal’s father was shot, and it left him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. He died due to complications from his injuries a few years later.
“He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said. “I came back here to be close to him.
“I came up here to look for a place to live, and I found some apartments in Pittsburgh [community], and I said, ‘I know where I’m going to live, but where is he [Royal] going to go to school. I gravitated toward this building, and then I came in and they had the curriculum and it was just like a full-blown little people school, not just a daycare.”
Reynelle says the building was bright, warm and inviting. They had people waiting at the door to greet her and her child. She could see the artwork on the walls and beyond those walls into the classrooms where the children were playing, engaging and learning.
“Coming here and seeing this school, I saw the atmosphere, and when I dug deeper and saw the curriculum and stuff, I loved it,” she said. “I got the best of both worlds. I got a pretty environment with some pretty great people.”
Currently, both of Reynelle’s children are on campus at the Dunbar Learning Complex [DLC]. After moving back to Atlanta for a second time, she said she also took advantage of the other available resources at the DLC.
“I actually worked at the [Center for Working Families] for a time,” she says. “I worked in maintenance and I got that through a man who did business through CWF.”
Reynelle is currently working her way through college. She went back to technical college and is getting her hotel and tourism management degree.
“I’ve had a lot of chances for growth since being at this [complex],” she said. Reynelle even received training through United Way of Greater Atlanta to become a substitute teacher. She liked how it allowed her another opportunity to be a part of child’s education experience.
Reynelle has always had an interest in making the best opportunity for herself and her children. She’s self-motivated and determined. She’s never afraid to ask questions and get involved. She’s made it her mission to make other people as involved as she is.
“I’m [Parent Teacher Association] president upstairs,” Reynelle says. “I’ll say that they definitely give you a voice here. You just have to take advantage of it. It’s all about education.
“You have to get this knowledge so that you can have the information to help yourself and your child.”
When United Way of Greater Atlanta agreed during its last strategic planning meeting to turn its company-wide focus to improve the well-being of children in the area, they had communities like the Dunbar complex in mind.
The Child Well-Being Index takes 14 different child, community and family measures to determine a CWB score for your zip code. The CWB heat map, which is featured on unitedwayatlanta.org, ranges from green to red—red was on the low-scoring end of the spectrum.
The Dunbar Learning Complex gave United Way this opportunity to hit all three of these measures. United Way could leverage their dollars in order to feed into Sheltering Arms and CWF, which would indirectly feed into the Dunbar school.
Reynelle has made it her personal mission to make sure and hit these measures in her own life, too. She’s not afraid to become engaged and ask questions. She encourages other parents around her to ask questions, as well. She knows the best way to grow a community is to become involved.
But, she understands that isn’t always as easy as it sounds. It’s why the work United Way does is so important.
It’s why United Way’s work to improve the child well-being in the Greater Atlanta area is an ongoing process.
“Being PTA president, you would think that’s my expertise, but I find it hard sometimes to get people involved,” Reynelle says. “Maybe it’s because of my audience? They have so many other factors… Even though there are resources here, there may be some other hindrance—there may not be family support, or there may be law issues and things of that nature, but we try to give [families] hope and a way to get through those hurdles.
“I feel like we get through those we can get through to.”
To invest in programs that help families like Reynelle’s, give to the Child Well-Being Impact Fund.