The opening of the new and much-anticipated West Lakes Early Learning Center (ELC) in April 2020 was nothing short of remarkable. While the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing early childhood education programs to close, and early childhood educators were forced to leave the field, the center overcame these obstacles and opened its doors to the community of West Lakes in Orlando, Florida. “When we reached out to the families who registered their children to attend the center, we found that they were from our community and that their parents and caregivers were essential workers,” says Alfreda Clark, Center Director. “These families had to go to work. We knew we had to open.”
What’s equally remarkable is that the center has continued to thrive in 2021. AdventHealth for Children, owner and operator of the West Lakes ELC, partnered with Community Health Centers (CHC) to open a new on-site pediatric health clinic in October. The clinic brings health services directly to the children who need them. The clinic is staffed by the federally qualified health center provider CHC. Having CHC on-site makes access to health care convenient and seamless for the families with children enrolled at the center. “People who have trouble accessing high-quality early education also have trouble accessing high-quality health services. These issues go hand in hand,” notes Dr. Rajan Wadhawan, Senior Executive Officer for AdventHealth for Children and AdventHealth for Women.
This work reflects the foundation’s focus on creating a more equitable society, as research repeatedly underscores that accessibility gaps in health care stem from long-standing racist and elitist policies that were designed to marginalize Black and brown communities.
Adhering to AdventHealth’s commitment to serving the community in a holistic fashion, the West Lakes ELC clinic provides access to immunizations, physicals, nutrition counseling and health guidance — all of which are vital for the health and education of their children. “Many of the families are dealing with the struggles of daily life and don’t have the time and resources to address other important things, including accessing health care for their children that may not be located inside of the community they live in,” Dr. Wadhawan says.
If families (and young children) have access to high-quality health care and early learning services in the same location, they no longer need to make the difficult choice between maintaining their income and prioritizing their health.
The clinic was the next logical step in the evolution of the ELC, which provides high-quality early childhood education for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years and includes a blended curriculum based on Primrose Schools’ Balanced Learning® curriculum and AdventHealth’s CREATION Kids program. Since the ELC opened, AdventHealth team members have worked to provide comprehensive services, including developmental screenings and on-site speech-language, occupational and behavioral therapies for children.
The focus on “whole person” care has been the key to the overall success of the ELC. Forming relationships and building trust within the community were the first steps toward creating long-term impact. At a community meeting to introduce the AdventHealth leaders, Dr. Wadhawan gave out his personal cell phone number and encouraged people to call him. When someone calls, he answers.
The center also focuses on educational and health equity for the children of West Lakes. The ELC’s Comprehensive Services Program Coordinator is dedicated to walking families through goal-setting and accessing solutions to family needs. Whether it is understanding a referral for health services, finding specific resources for families or bringing therapy services on-site, the coordinator works to connect the dots for parents around their children’s development and family needs.
The early detection of developmental delays and the health services provided on-site are making a big difference. Vision, hearing, social-emotional and language screenings have helped identify physical and developmental delays — most minor, but some major — that allowed for the early intervention that will support long-term outcomes. “This is a game changer,” said Maria Katz, Director of Education at the ELC. “We have a great curriculum that we implement with fidelity, but for those children who need extra support, providing prevention when they are little is having a huge impact.”