Shoreline School Readiness program to address poverty

David Briggs
Alex Porrata and Maria Niggle are seeking new funding sources to continue their work in West Marin.

For the past eight years, Shoreline School Readiness co-workers Alex Porrata and Maria Niggle have worked prodigiously to provide young children and their families in coastal Marin with the resources to live healthier, more educated and fulfilling lives. From their compact studio office in downtown Point Reyes Station, and under a progressively languishing budget, the two Latinas have managed not only to strengthen and create new bilingual pre-education initiatives, but also to serve as role models for an ever expanding and underrepresented local Latino community.

Now, with massive state budget cuts projected, Porrata and Niggle have begun concentrating their attention on more grassroots, community-based projects that directly target what they view as the leading obstacle to school preparedness—rural poverty. By finding partnering organizations to take over many of their zero-to-five aged programs, such as Baby Gym and Summer Bridge, the two intend to free up resources for projects that address such rudimentary concerns as worker training, transportation and affordable housing

It’s a transition they say they have seen coming for some time, and will not diminish the importance of previous efforts to give young children the tools to better succeed.  “The early years are some of the most important for a child’s brain development,” Niggle said. “So all of our work is really founded on the idea that if we can get a strong base for children then their school-age years are going to be much easier and much simpler.”

Since it was created in 2004, the Readiness program has developed a number of popular collaborative-based infant and toddler projects, including the five-week Summer Bridge session for incoming kindergartners, the revitalized weekly Baby Gym playgroup, a car-seat donation project, a bilingual literacy project, a nutrition-oriented potluck group, and a Latino parent/worker network.

Until now, the program has received the bulk of its funding from First Five Marin, which draws revenue from a state tobacco tax and distributes it to early-childhood development initiatives in communities with limited social resources and severe income equality. That money has dwindled over the years, Porrata said, and, despite a recent legal victory by First Five advocates, neither she nor Niggle expect to draw any further financial support from the initiative. They also receive grant funding from the Marin Community Foundation and the United Way of the Bay Area, but the latter has significantly tightened its allotment of cash in recent years.

In response, Porrata and Niggle, who hold Masters degrees in education and social work, respectively, have spent the last year ascertaining how to generate the biggest bang for their community-based buck. That means helping older family members, especially those who don’t speak English and have limited educations, gain access to critical resources such as employment, housing, transportation, medical advocacy and licensed, dependable infant-toddler care.

“If you want to go back to work out here and you’re a mom, there’s no licensed program, so everybody is sort of making things temporarily work by piecing it together,” Porrata said. “But we know, and research shows, that infants and toddlers need consistency and routine. So what happens to that if you’re switching childcare all the time?”

Porrata, who lives in Inverness, said she resorted to bringing her children to work when they were infants, and eventually entered into a nanny share with another family once they became older. Though it’s worked well, she admitted that not everyone has that option. “And we think that scares a lot of families away from West Marin,” Niggle said. “The notion that ‘I can’t hold a job and take care of my kids so therefore I can’t live here.’”

The dearth of affordable local housing is another large detriment to school preparedness, Porrata said. “We’ve got a lot of precariously housed families in West Marin who have resorted to living with relatives or couch surfing because they can’t afford the rents, and that can be challenging when you’re trying to establish nutritional and restful routines for children.”

Those precarious situations can often leave families, particularly children, exposed to long-term health issues. Niggle cited a number of cases of asthma-related illnesses linked to damp and moldy living conditions. As a social worker, she said one of her primary roles through the Readiness program is to advocate for families with medical issues who might not otherwise be able to accurately express their concerns.

“The fact is, many of my clients have a third or fourth grade education, and giving them the tools to tell their stories medically is very important,” Niggle said. She provided one example in which she helped a non-English speaking mother construct a scrapbook from receipts and old pictures related to her son’s illness. The boy is currently receiving treatment for a long-undiagnosed hormone imbalance.

Niggle grew up in Bakersfield and has worked in economically vulnerable communities in San Francisco and New York. In none of these has she seen the same depth of poverty as in West Marin, which lacks the social safety nets often present in urban environments.

Porrata, who grew up in Inverness, said she has witnessed first-hand the influx of Latinos in West Marin, and realizes how important it is to provide role models of strong, professional Latinos. “To see Latinos in positions of power and educated—those two pieces are really important because [it shows] they can happen,” she said.

But in a region as demographically diverse as West Marin it can be challenging to remain relevant for all subsets of the community. To tackle that, Porrata said she and Niggle have worked to make every program fully bilingual, and to announce them in various capacities—online, through flyers and in a monthly calendar that they place in a box next to the public restrooms in Point Reyes Station.

“It’s also pounding the pavement,” Niggle said. “It’s going to the Palace [Market] and having a conversation with some workers, or calling a client who has specified a certain need and telling them about the programs we offer. A lot of it is word of mouth.”

And despite their pending financial concerns, Porrata and Niggle remain optimistic that much of the groundwork they have laid will be sustainable in the long run, with or without them. They said they plan to strengthen new and existing programs until they no longer have jobs—which, to be clear, has been their goal from the beginning.

“We want to close our office eventually,” Porrata said. “We’re two Latinas working in a shoebox. It’s just the two of us. We partner with the community because we can’t do this ourselves. This work belongs to them.”