It’s 8:30 a.m. at Infant Friendship Center (IFC) of the Montgomery Early Learning Centers (MELC). Already bustling with activity, storytime on one floor, kids learning letters and numbers in the next room, sing-a-longs on another floor, the center has been hopping since it opened at 7 a.m.
Chris Ambrose, MELC center director, explained that this sight is actually scaled down from when child enrollment greatly increases in mid-September.
Now in its 49th year as a nonprofit, MELC strives to deliver high quality, early childhood and school age programs regardless of the families’ ability to pay.
“Too often early childhood education is viewed as childcare, but it really is much more than that,” said Ambrose. “We do lessons, learning standards, and individualize the program for the overall development of each child.”
At MELC, these 2-5 year olds are empowered with beneficial social and academic skills that many of their peers do not have going into kindergarten. The wide majority -- 85 percent -- of a child’s core brain structure is formed by age 3, making places like MELC integral for developing young minds in Philadelphia.
“A child with a good foundation can go on to be a successful learner and do great things in life,” said Ambrose. “Without that foundation, it can be a struggle.”
The IFC now serves 58 kids, a few short of the center’s capacity, and more than 1000 kids are enrolled across all the MELC centers.
As a ten-year board member with two daughters who graduated from an MELC center, and immediate past president of MELC, Jeanie Carpenter, director of network development, reached out to Chris Ambrose to see if a Penn Medicine CAREs grant can support programming for the kids.
Now, thanks to support through a Penn Medicine CAREs grant, this Fall, IFC will conduct eyesight and hearing screenings for enrolled children two to five years of age in their natural environment. Doing the hearing and vision screenings where the kids play at MELC, physicians or residents doing the screenings can detect behaviors they may not catch in a doctor’s office.
Ambrose explained that sometimes children have hearing or vision problems that go undiagnosed at that age. For example, her daughter was diagnosed with a reading delay as she was going into second grade, and began using glasses in third grade. At that young age, Ambrose’s daughter never said anything about it.
“A child with a vision problem may not know there’s a difference between the way the world looks to them and how it looks to everyone else, because that’s how it has always looked to them,” said Ambrose.
The grant also supports producing information packets outlining resources available to parents with children of special needs.
“This MELC center is within Penn’s Community in our backyard, which makes it a good fit,” said Carpenter.
At three MELC early learning sites – Norristown, Pottstown, and West Philadelphia/Families First—more than 90% of the enrolled children are members of low-income families. In 2009, MELC provided more than $97,000 in tuition assistance, allowing 30 families to access this critical early childhood education.
Ensuring children have proper vision and hearing is integral to their success in language development, word recognition, and other areas in grades one through five, which makes the Penn Medicine CAREs support so important.
“Montgomery Early Learning Center exemplifies the great work that early childhood education centers can do for kids of all backgrounds,” said Carpenter. “The kids in less affluent areas receive the same curriculum as those in more affluent areas. The organization is giving kids an equal chance at school.”
“It has been rewarding being a board member and see the organization grow,” said Carpenter.
About Penn Medicine CAREs
Continuing its commitment to underserved communities, Penn Medicine established the CAREs Foundation Grant Program in January 2012 to support and recognize faculty, student, and/or staff efforts to improve the health of the community and increase volunteerism in community-based programs. These programs have addressed health disparities, provided care to seniors, administered free medical care to homeless in Philadelphia, helped fund medical care for uninsured and underinsured, and more.
Each quarter, the Foundation awards grants of up to $2000 per project to community and hospital-based programs on behalf of the employee(s) or Perelman School of Medicine student(s) who volunteer their time to support the program. The funding is eligible for expenses related to initiatives in community health improvement services, health professions education, subsidized health services, cash and in-kind contributions, or community building activities.