Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a record-shattering 8,500 child care sites have closed throughout California. In Sonoma County, the mass shutdown of early education programs was only compounded by the chaos of climate change disasters: wildfires, toxic air derived from dense smoke, power outages, home evacuations and flooding — all inciting instability in the fragile development of the county’s young children.
Last year, Little Wildflowers Preschool in Santa Rosa, a Montessori child care facility, unknowingly became a lifesaver for children whose care had been unexpectedly disrupted. They opened their doors on March 16, 2020, the same day six Bay Area counties established their shelter-in-place order, restricting all residents to their homes. Sonoma County followed the next day.
“Children are so resilient and adaptable,” said Maria Jasso, co-director of Little Wildflowers Preschool. “Parents reach out to us because they see the need for their children to socialize. Some of our students don’t have siblings and it’s been very hard for them during the pandemic to not be around other kids their age. Children have to socialize, develop language skills and other skills to interact with their peers,” says Jasso, 34, originally from Michoacán, Mexico, and mother of Scarlett, 7.
This past May, Little Wildflowers completed a year of operations, serving a population of 24, nearly half its total capacity of 55 children. Currently, there’s a waitlist of over 20 families.
"It's unfortunate, but this is the norm for these kids today," says Jasso. "We follow the Montessori philosophy, where each child learns our program differently and where we talk about everything in a language that is comprehensible to them."
Jasso and Evelyn Contreras, also 34 and with three children, spent two years strategizing the development of Little Wildflowers before it became an official daycare center. They saw that kids in Sonoma County needed a place where they could comfortably learn to adapt to their environment. They also wanted to create a center where each child was encouraged to cultivate their own personality, and Spanish and English were taught in equal measure.
“We speak in Spanish all day,” said Jasso. Families who speak English at home want their children to grow up learning a second language, and those from Latino households want to reinforce the education they receive at home.
In their school activities, Jasso and Contreras welcome other cultures and talk about them with the kids.
"I was amazed at the way my kids talked about Obama and Martin Luther King after having a whole topic on Black History Month, and they were also talking about social justice issues, COVID, the fires. How children absorb is amazing," said Elly Grogan, mother of Hazel and Julian, 4 and 2, respectively.
Hazel spent that spring afternoon outside in the Little Wildflowers garden playing with the chicks that she and her classmates watched grow up in an incubator. That's what she enjoyed the most, she said, "playing outside."
“When I pick up my kids from Little Wildflowers, they are often covered in dirt from head to toe, with big smiles on their faces and brimming with excitement about finding ladybugs in the garden or making mud pies in the clay kitchen,” said Grogan. “Preschool feels like this oasis where all the challenges from COVID and fires just go away and our kids can have fun and just be kids.”