Editor’s note: This blogpost was written as a part of Ringling College of Art and Design’s Storytelling for Community Engagement: Ringling Student Views course, fall semester 2022, led by instructor Sylvia Whitman. Students were paired with nonprofits to learn about their mission and impact, and the post that follows shares the story of Children First.
The project was completed as part of a collaboration with The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center. Many thanks to Charlene Altenhain and Sarah Glendening, especially, for their coordination of student writers to nonprofit organizations.
Maria Buitrago is a parent first. She and her two daughters immigrated from Colombia 20 years ago in hopes of a better life. In Colombia, she and her husband were lawyers—Maria specifically being a family lawyer. When they got to America, her priority was finding a good education for her daughters that was comparable to a private education. She wanted something local that would set up her children for success. Her relative recommended Children First, an early childhood education program that prepares children for Kindergarten. She loved that Children First made individualized learning a priority—letting the students lead the teachers.
Maria was an involved parent from the get-go. When she wasn’t at work, she was volunteering in her daughters’ classes. After spending all her time there, she wanted more. When she asked Children First how she could get more involved, they suggested she take a few classes to be an assistant teacher in the Early Head Start Program.
Even after landing the assistant job, she still craved more. She wanted to make a stronger impact. With her bilingual edge, Maria was offered a spot representing Children First in the Helios grant, a grant that helped community daycares across the state. After that, she became a literacy coach for two years, helping out local daycares. When the grant finished, she gravitated back to Children First.
When Maria came back, there were two positions open for her, and she decided to become a family advocate since she now had teaching experience as well as a family law background. As a former family lawyer, she knew what it took to help children and parents in an individualized way. It checked off all her boxes and combined her passions.
Unlike other early learning centers, Children First focuses on an individualized approach, not just with students, but with families as well. Family advocates have low caseloads, so families know they are always a priority, rather than a mark on a checklist.
Children First’s goal is to prepare children for Kindergarten, but family advocates do more than that. Beside student-prep, Children First makes sure parents are also set up for success, so when a child is ready for Kindergarten, so is the family. The nonprofit lets immigrant and low-income families know what to expect in the next years of schooling for their child, smoothing the path ahead.
“Our work is very rewarding."
Advocates educate families on an array of topics, including health (for both the child and the family), safety, developmental stages of children, dental care, vision care, behavior, mental health, disabilities, and more. Some things aren’t easy to hear, especially when it comes to obstacles in development, so advocates are there to ease heavy conversations, acting as liaisons between the classroom and families. During rough times, especially COVID-19 and the recent Hurricane Ian, Children First provides wellness checks and does anything it can to help families in need.
Family advocate helping a new family, 2022. Photo courtesy of Children First.
The staff at Children First is well taken care of in all avenues of life. Providing proper technology to staff members, Blue Cross health insurance, telemedicine, and therapy is all covered with Children First. With 30 locations and plenty of resources, there is always room to grow professionally in its employ.
In 2017, Maria began taking classes to further her advocate education. She learned a more positive approach to her job, asking families “what is your strength” and “how can we improve you?” After completing her classes, she took it upon herself to teach other advocates the same message, which has since led her to becoming a family advocate coach.
As an advocate, Maria helps a variety of families from all walks of life—every age, race, sexuality, and any type of guardianship, be it single parents or even grandparents raising children. Accepting and respecting cultures and families is very important to Children First. Maria finds helping immigrant families very rewarding, as it’s not only preparing a family for Kindergarten but also preparing them for a successful future in America.
“We love our families. It's our passion."
In 2020, Maria was featured as a “Woman of Influence” in Sarasota Magazine. Maria is still participating in the community as part of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Sarasota class of 2022. Although her journey has not been an easy one, she persists every day and is excited for each new step along the way.
Her children are grown up, but she’s still active in her community and family life. It is her passion to help others and make an impact, not only in the community, but in the individual lives of those who have the pleasure of working with her, especially through Children First.