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East Harlem early childhood education center offers hope for families in need

East Harlem early childhood education center offers hope for families in need
East Harlem early childhood education center offers hope for families in need 02:35

NEW YORK - Many New York City schools are greeting new faces this semester -- those of asylum seekers. An early childhood education center on East 126th Street in East Harlem specializes in supporting them and other students with unique needs.

The Association to Benefit Children goes far beyond the ABCs. It appears to be all smiles in the program's Graham School, serving babies in bellies through 5-year-olds whose home lives look very different. Some have special needs, others just arrived in America, and almost all of them live in poverty. At ABC, they find freedom.

"After a few days, you could just see a whole transformation on them," said youth service director Jessica Casanova. "It's like they feel so comforted and like they belong."

"I let them know they're in a safe place," said special education teacher Zaida Villavicencio. "I let them know I'm one of them."

Villavicencio arrived from Mexico with her family when she was 7 and found herself at ABC after school learning English while staff cared for her three infant brothers upstairs. She is about to hit her 10-year anniversary working at the school and just received her Masters in special education.

"I had a kid last year who was only Spanish-speaking, and I honestly saw myself in her, just thinking back to when I first got here and how scary it was," Villavicencio recalled.

Co-founder and executive director Gretchen Buchenholz created ABC in the 1980s after she became an "accidental witness" to society's forgotten populations by walking into the wrong door one day.

"I came upon a room filled with plastic chairs and cribs, a room where homeless children and families were stored," she remembered.

Now, the publicly-funded program serves more than 3,000 families across the city, operating two dozen mental health clinics in public schools in addition to their own facilities, where they educate parents as well.

Erica Zarate Rodriguez's 7-month-old is her fourth child to attend ABC.

"They are exemplary young people," the mother said in Spanish, because of the support they have received at ABC. "To everyone, infinite thanks."

Rodriguez's two teens still come for after-school care, where backpacks filled with supplies waited for the students returning from summer break.

"That's where the therapy starts," said Graham School director Mary Ellen Rooney, "just play, that's it. You know, we'll get to the other stuff, but just offer a safe space and build those trusting relationships."

The elevated trains traveling back and forth inspire the little dreamers to chart their own future course.

In addition to public funding, the ABC program relies on up to $5 million in private donations each year.

Have a story idea or tip in Harlem? Email Jessi by CLICKING HERE.

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