While talking to a 23-year-old single mother last Thursday, he felt a tug on his shorts, and when he looked down, he was gazing into the face of a wide-eyed, flaxen-blonde 4-year-old, who simply wanted to say hi to Mommy’s new friend.
Pastor Scott Billue has heard the mother’s story many times since starting the Matthew’s Hope homeless ministry in West Orange County four and half years ago. The little girl’s father isn’t paying child support. She’s having trouble finding a job. And even if she lands a job, who’s going to take care of her daughter?
“She is a perfect example of why we need a preschool,” Billue said last week. “She has a 4-year-old, and she can’t afford preschool, so how can she work?”
He said he processes other homeless parents just like this on a weekly basis. Now, more than half of Matthew’s Hope’s clients are women and young children, making the need for a preschool even greater.
Billue took his idea before the Winter Garden Planning & Zoning Board on Aug. 4, and members unanimously voted in favor of the project.
“This preschool is so important because there are government programs out there right now for parents with young kids, but the problem is that for their kids to be accepted, they have to show that they have a work history for a year. What do you do Year 1?” Billue said. “If you are married, one parent can work and the other can stay home. What do you do if you’re a single parent?”
He hopes the preschool will solve some of those issues so parents can concentrate on their job search knowing their children are in a safe environment.
What Billue doesn’t want to do is provide a simple babysitting service.
The Montessori way
Billue has become a big advocate of the Montessori philosophy after hearing about its approach to teaching and learning.
“We’re seeing kids who are not developing mentally, physically, socially or spiritually because they’re in the same environment every day,” Billue said.
According to the American Montessori Society, “This method of education, developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, is a child-centered educational approach based on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood.…It is a view of the child as one who is naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment. It is an approach that values the human spirit and the development of the whole child — physical, social, emotional, cognitive.”
A solid beginning
The school will be called Firm Foundation Preschool because, Billue said, “we hope to provide a firm foundation to really launch their entire life from — with the hope that what they learn during their time with us, that it will spill over into their families.
“I don’t want to be a part of something that contributes to the next generation of homelessness,” he said.
Two staff members have already been hired to operate the preschool and educate up to 24 children ages 3-6. Ginger Allen will serve as director, and she and Katie Reed will be the teachers. Allen has a psychology degree from the University of Central Florida and has taught preschool for four years. She is a longtime Matthew’s Hope volunteer. Reed has a psychology degree from Baylor University and a master’s degree in Christian ministry.
The plan is to operate the preschool from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. with early care starting at 7 a.m. and after care ending at 7 p.m. Billue said several retired teachers have expressed an interest in operating the early and after care portions of the day.
During the summer, children up to age 10 can participate.
This preschool has been a dream of Billue’s for years, but, as with any huge project, money kept it from becoming a reality. Until now. Matthew’s Hope received $25,000 from the Universal Orlando Foundation plus $50,000 from a group of Christian businessmen in St. Louis, Mo., “who try to identify with kingdom-building organizations around the country,” Billue said, and who contacted him after reading an Association Press article on the ministry.
Kiwanis Florida and Kiwanis International also pledged a minimum of $40,000 toward a playground.
Billue estimates that it will take another $30,000 to get the preschool running in its first year. He took advantage of a summer discount and has already purchased furniture that is designed specifically for a Montessori classroom. Now he’s hoping people will elect to donate to the school by adopting a piece of furniture. There are 24 chairs at $66 apiece, two rectangular tables at $119 each, four square tables that are $133 apiece, two round tables that each cost $187, 18 shelves ranging in price from $180 to $219 and a locking shelf that costs $323.
In addition, the Montessori curriculum and materials have a price tag of $5,000, a deck with handicap ramp will cost $3,000, preschool insurance is estimated at $3,000, the portable rental will cost $1,000 monthly, and teacher training is $5,000 apiece. Teacher salaries will add $46,000 annually.
The next step
A surveyor and site contractor are needed so Matthew’s Hope can get to the permitting stage. For at least the first two years, the school will operate out of two portables — one will be a classroom and the other will be used as an activity center and as space for parenting classes. They will be placed near the Matthew’s Hope offices, which are on the south end of the West Orange Church of Christ campus on Daniels Road.
For information on homeless programs, go to matthewshopeministries.org. To get involved or to offer services, call (407) 905-9500.
“We either invest in these people now, or we will pay for it later,” Billue said. “It’s a lot like our health. If we don’t take care of it today, the price is much greater down the line.”