Giant red and white mushrooms sprouting from the floor get the children and their caretakers in the door, but it’s the comfortable seating areas, free classes, and comprehensive services that entice their returns to the Vallejo First 5 Center.
Solano County’s first stand-alone First 5 Center location was the result of nearly four years of planning, fundraising, and building. The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a federally recognized tribe whose reservation is located in Yolo County but whose ancestral Patwin territory extends throughout Solano County, was the first major funder, providing $300,000 for construction and another $300,000 for annual operating costs from the Tribe’s Doyuti T’uhkama giving program.
“We were excited to support this incredibly worthy endeavor,” said Anthony Roberts, Chairman of the Yocha Dehe Tribal Council and the Board of Directors for the Doyuti T’uhkama. “Despite our Tribe’s successes, our people have known poverty, and one of our principal missions is to help people in need.”
The Center had initially opened its doors to the public in February 2020, only to close a month later due to the global pandemic. This prompted a pivot to a warehouse and distribution center, with the Center providing families with free diapers, art and activity kits, and food.
First 5 recently reopened with smaller class sizes and mandated masking. On a Thursday morning “Eat, Play, Grow” — a nutrition class led by bilingual (Spanish-English) center staffer Jessica Macario Hernendez for 3- to 5-year-olds and their caregivers — was full of energetic preschoolers wielding magic markers andcucumber sticks.
“We like coming here because my daughter learns English,” Andre Raxic, 34, of Vallejo explained (in Spanish), “as well as drawing and food preparation. And I learn how to do activities with my daughter.”
Stacked neatly on a paper plate in front of Raxic and his 3-year-old daughter, Emily, were the lower half of a cut bagel, cream cheese, grated carrots, and what Emily called “cucumber fries.” To the side was a large, predominantly green collage depicting broccoli and a few other, less easily identifiable vegetables.
Emmanuel Santiago, 4, had already reached the eating phase of the class and was busy deconstructing his sandwich when he posed for a photo. “He loves playing in the mushrooms,” said his mother, Elizabeth Reyes, referring to the tall fiberglass, concrete, and steel mushrooms that dominate the large indoor play area. “But it was only [at this center] that he started participating, and started sitting down in circle time, because he saw other children doing it,” she added.
First 5 is a California state initiative to improve the lives of the state’s children from the prenatal stage through five years of age, with a principal focus on impoverished communities. It was created in November 1998 when voters passed Proposition 10, which levied a tax on tobacco products to help fund child-development and early-education programs. While a statewide commission provides information and establishes programs, each county has its own commission to guide implementation to fit the specific needs of their communities.
Solano County Supervisor Erin Hannigan has been involved in the First 5 initiative for eight years.
“When I first got involved in 2014, we were getting about $4 million from the tobacco tax. But as people stopped smoking — which is good! — we were getting less funding,” Hannigan said. With less money from the state, the commission had to review where and how it was spending: “We asked ourselves, how could we do it differently, how could we support systemic change? We decided to create a center for caregivers and children where they could learn all aspects of child development: from nutrition to motor skills, to helping caregivers be their child’s first teacher.”
This required outside funding, which is how Yocha Dehe got involved. The Solano County program historically operated out of an office in Fairfield until major funding from Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation helped facilitate the construction and operation of a stand-alone center designed to offer classes and a play area. “It’s not often that a government entity receives funding without a lot of restrictions; this allows us to be innovative,” said Hannigan.
The goal for the Vallejo center was to create a hub where the broadest range of services would be accessible to Solano County’s most needy families. During the planning stages, the city of Vallejo was identified as the county’s poorest zip code, and the Sonoma Boulevard location was deemed the most accessible to the majority of families.
Strategically located between DD’s Discounts and Dollar Tree in the Vallejo Plaza Shopping Center, the Center gets a good amount of walk-ins from pedestrian traffic. The fantastic polka-dotted mushrooms visible through the front and side floor-to-ceiling windows are also a draw.
“We had to take out a window to get the mushrooms in,” recalled Deputy Director Megan Richards, “and we used a forklift for the largest one.” The largest one is the most popular, of course, because its stem is hollowed out just enough for a small group of toddlers to gather inside. Next to this favorite fungus are two large acorn sculptures, lying on their sides as if found on the forest floor. The acorns are hollowed out as well, but they fit one or two children at most. Sprinkled throughout the rest of the indoor playground are ladybugs, log pillows, and a small bridge.
“We included the acorns to honor the Tribe [of Yocha Dehe],” explained Richards, for the center is a direct result of the Tribe’s dedication to funding Solano County youth, in particular through its Doyuti T’uhkama giving program. The acorn is indeed sacred and meaningful to the Yocha Dehe people, as the name for theTribe’s program means “to give the acorn” in their Patwin language.
“We wanted to ensure our giving entity reflected the spirit and values of our Tribal community, and so the name represents that spirit in our own language,” said James Kinter, Secretary of Yocha Dehe’s Tribal Council. “From mere acorns come mighty oaks.”
The playground is the front section of a large, carpeted room filled with comfortable couches and chairs. “We did not want this place to look or feel like an office!” exclaimed Richards. All the furniture is moveable, so that it can be cleared away for a dance party and then quickly rearranged into private seating areas for caretakers to meet with staff members and other providers. A room to the side houses classes for children’s yoga and caregiver self-care (mocktails included!). Next to this room is a smaller room with kitchen facilities where the nutrition class and anything else with the potential for mess takes place (for example, making slime). Individual meeting rooms, offices, and floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with boxed diapers line the back wall.
“We are larger than most child development centers,” said Program Manager Lorraine Fernandez. “We want caregivers to be able to sit, relax, and connect with other parents while their children can play in a safe and age-appropriate space.”
The larger goal, Fernandez added, is to reduce disparity in children’s health and development. According to Richards, Solano County providers have space for only about 20% of the county’s children who need care. “Many of our kids are not in preschool,” added Fernandez. “This creates a gap in readiness for school.”
One way First 5 works to close this gap by is by making it easy for clients to get all the information and resources they might need in one place. “Our resource specialist can get you signed up for Cal Fresh, or free diapers, or legal aid,” said Hannigan. Developmental screenings are available for any interested families. The Center also strives to be as accessible as possible. Intake forms are printed in English and Spanish, and at least half the staff are bilingual.
In this early stage of operation, the Center measures its success in practical terms: during the first year, 369 families enrolled in services for a total of 1,111 individuals reached. This is despite intermittent closures due to the global pandemic. During the months of March to June 2020 alone, the Center distributed 700 activity bags, 1,400 books, nearly 200 produce boxes, and “countless” diapers and wipes. While Yocha Dehe was the largest single funder of the Center during its first year, other funders have since come on board, including First 5 Solano and Kaiser Permanente.
The Vallejo center has been so successful, in fact, that the Board of Supervisors is using it as a model for the second First 5 Center in Fairfield. State funding for the Fairfield Center was announced on Feb. 2; meanwhile, Yocha Dehe had already committed $100,000.
Post-pandemic, the Vallejo First 5 Center has been particularly helpful in lifting spirits and reducing isolation. Melissa Morales, 38, started visiting the First 5 Center with her three-year-old daughter Rebecca when it first opened in February 2020. During the pandemic closure, she dropped by to get diapers. Since the Center’s reopening, she has come for the parent-child classes. “We don’t have little kids around us, and our [extended] family is not close. My daughter likes to spend time with children her own age.” When asked what she likes most about the Center, Morales responded, “We love everything about this place!”
— Margaret Dubin