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Racial Justice and Social Equity

Preschoolers earn diplomas while experiencing homelessness

A dozen preschoolers at Father Joe’s Villages Therapeutic Childcare Center wriggle in three-foot blue gowns and too-big caps that slide around on their heads.

Liberty Lucky’s name is called – a wide-eyed almost-4-year-old with curls springing from her cap – and her mom Amber erupts into cheers as she accepts a sticky-fingers-proof laminated diploma.

Liberty started at Father Joe’s Therapeutic Childcare Center a year and a half ago in diapers, scribbling.

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Staff potty trained her in six days, to Amber Lucky’s astonishment. Now, she’s starting to trace her own name.

Many of the children at Father Joe’s have never been in a childcare setting before, a staff member said. The preschool helps them learn how to be in a classroom setting and interact with others.

Amber Lucky said it taught Liberty social and emotional skills, boundaries and confidence.

“I don't even know who she is anymore,” Amber Lucky said, beaming. “Within two weeks of doing (transitional kindergarten) readiness, she said something like, ‘Oh, mommy, I got an instrument from a toy chest.’ And I said, ‘What did you say? That was a big word!’ And it just kept coming.”

As Liberty completed her reading logs, her mom could trade in kids’ cash points from the center for necessities like socks for her growing feet.

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Staff took the children to the beach, museums and summer day camps.

The graduates wriggle in their caps and gowns before the ceremony begins at Father Joe's Village on th
Katie Hyson / KPBS
The graduates wriggle in their caps and gowns before the ceremony begins at Father Joe's Village on Thursday, June 20, 2024.

They need more funding for those activities, program manager Alma Hutcherson said, and a new vehicle.

“One of our vehicles has been breaking down practically every time we take it out,” Hutcherson said. “We would be able to take more children out if we had another vehicle.”

The center is licensed to care for 102 children from infancy to teens. Twenty-two of those children are in the preschool program, Hutcherson said.

Amber Lucky said she could trust the center with her child because the staff loved Liberty like she does – “big shoes to fill,” she said. “They do it with grace.”

Amber Lucky’s husband died from cancer a few years ago, she said.

She said the center did a lot of play therapy with Liberty, who was “acting out” and asking for her father.

She called the staff “angels in disguise.”

“They just really were a really safe place and really there for me when I really couldn't be there for myself,” she said.

The free childcare let Amber Lucky work on staying sober, graduate from a property management program and get certified as a peer support specialist.

Amber Lucky hides her smile as the graduates prepare to perform "We are the World" at Father Joe's Village on Thursday, June 20, 2024.
Katie Hyson / KPBS
Amber Lucky (right) hides her smile as the graduates prepare to perform "We are the World" at Father Joe's Village on Thursday, June 20, 2024.

In February, she said she moved the family into their own townhouse in Chula Vista. Last month, she bought their first car.

Liberty is now headed to transitional kindergarten at the same school as her 5-year-old sister.

She said her favorite part of preschool was playing with Play-Doh with her best friend, Michael.

At the graduation, Michael leads the class in one final performance – a rousing rendition of “We are the World” sung in roughly 12 different keys.

After, Liberty runs to her mother and sister.

Amid the chaos and celebration, they hold each other tight.

The child care industry has long been in crisis, and COVID-19 only made things worse. Now affordable, quality care is even more challenging to find, and staff are not paid enough to stay in the field. This series spotlights people each struggling with their own childcare issues, and the providers struggling to get by.