Youth Village community preschool prepares to graduate first class of students
FORT WALTON BEACH — When Nellie Bogar founded the local nonprofit Youth Village in 1999, it was operated solely as an after-school program and summer camp for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
The organization was formerly run out of a 3,000-square-foot building that used to be a church. But as Youth Village has grown its reach and expanded into a preschool academy and voluntary prekindergarten education program, its facility has grown with it.
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Bogar, the executive director, said she and her daughter, Valerie Bogar, who also has a hand in running the nonprofit as a director, purchased a new building on 644 Anchors St. N.W. in Fort Walton Beach in March 2020.
“We closed on the building the day before quarantine,” Nellie Bogar said.
The timing might not have been ideal, but the nonprofit had some help in ensuring the building, an old day care center, would be ready for its first-ever group of children in the early education programs when it was safe for them to return.
The new building offers quite a bit more room at a little more than 5,000 square feet, with four preschool classrooms and two school-aged rooms — all remodeled with the help from the 823rd RED HORSE Squadron at Hurlburt Field and support from an extensive list of community sponsors.
“Dozens of them came out and did the floors, the ceiling, the painting,” Nellie Bogar said. “Anything you can imagine, they came and did it and they were awesome.”
The squadron — a part of the Air Force’s heavy-construction unit — offers its services to nonprofits and churches in the community at no cost. Youth Village paid for the materials and the men and women renovated the building from top to bottom.
They installed all new floor tiles, ceiling tiles, kitchen cabinets, playground equipment, plumbing and more.
After months of renovation during the summer, hiring staff members, advertising for children and getting a child care license from the Florida Department of Children and Families, Youth Village officially opened its doors for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year in November.
Nellie Bogar said it’s been “unbelievable” watching the organization rapidly expand during the past few years. It still hosts an after-school program for school-aged children and an annual summer program with a variety of activities, but now offers much more.
'How about a preschool?'
“I just wanted a place where kids could come after school and be safe and do their homework,” Nellie Bogar said while recalling the early years of Youth Village. “It was the same thing for years until (my daughter) said ‘How about a preschool.’ ”
Valerie Bogar was heavily involved with her mother’s nonprofit growing up, and shares a similar passion. She obtained her bachelor's degree in early childhood education and began to notice the impact they could make by taking children in at an earlier age.
Some of the most important development in the brain happens by the age of 5, and early learning can help them succeed in school and in life later on, Nellie Bogar said.
“We were like, ‘Wow, what difference could we make if we had them before they started school,’ ” Valerie Bogar said.
The preschool academy, for children ages 3 to 5, began in November, and the voluntary prekindergarten education program (VPK), which focuses on the 4 to 5 age group, began a few months later in January.
Some 40 children were enrolled in the programs in the 2020-2021 school year, which got off to a late start because of COVID-19.
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About 90% of the children come from low-income, single-parent households. Although those children often are considered “at risk,” Nellie Bogar said she prefers the term “untapped” because it signifies the presence of undiscovered strength or knowledge.
“We have some kids in here with talent, but there’s nobody to help them,” she said. “These kids are bright, It is amazing what they’re learning and what they know as you sit and talk to them. We’re going to get them early and show this community what untapped resources are, and we’re doing it already.”
The Emerald Coast Early Learning Coalition helps parents who aren’t able to afford the program by providing them with vouchers, often covering almost 100% of the cost. Community sponsors that help the organization pay regular operation costs, and utilities also sometimes step in to help parents cover tuition costs.
“When you think about it, especially after COVID-19, how many parents can’t afford anything?” Nellie Bogar said. “Everybody needs help, especially now. We have a lot of single, low-income parents, and that’s why we’re here.”
More than just academics
The Youth Village Preschool Academy uses a curriculum called “Big Day for Pre-K,” which includes lesson plans that integrate social-emotional development, physical development, literacy, science, math and arts.
“It takes something that they actually know and see, like their neighborhood, and uses that to teach them academics," Valerie Bogar said. “(It) also uses that to help with their social and emotional skills; how to basically be a person. 'Please' and 'thank you' and how to interact and solve conflict issues.”
Ceidy Espinal Dominguez was at the center Wednesday teaching her VPK class with blocks, books and bingo. One child who had learned his alphabet was helping the others at his table as he read and wrote the bingo letters that came up.
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“They don’t know what they’re actually doing, but that’s a way of not only developing their prime motor skills but also learning, reading and writing,” Espinal Dominguez said of her classroom environment.
The children are divided into class sizes of 10 to 12 to provide them with more one-on-one time with teachers. That helps them improve in individual areas, Valerie Bogar said.
Espinal Dominguez said she was spending some one-on-one time with a girl that day to help her learn the last few letters in her last name.
“I’ll tell her what the letters are and then I’ll practice the words,” Espinal Dominguez said. “I’ll sit down with her and do like a Play-Doh activity where we’ll do several letters of that name so she can be familiarized with the sounds.”
Many of the children also have outside factors in their lives that sometimes can hinder learning, Valerie Bogar said. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a noticeable impact on some.
“A lot of kids can’t get where they need to go academically because they have all this other stuff going on,” she said. “In these situations, especially because of COVID-19, they’re noticing that a lot of kids are dealing with trauma.”
The Youth Village Child Care Center uses multiple assessment tools to monitor the progress of children in its programs. Children in the Preschool Academy are administered a one-on-one test at the beginning, middle and end of the school year.
The test examines their oral language development, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, mathematics and social-emotional development.
As the 2020-2021 school year draws to an end, Nellie Bogar said almost all of the children’s grades have gone up, and Valerie Bogar said teachers have seen positive emotional changes in some children.
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The first VPK graduation is only a few days away, and Nellie Bogar said she will definitely tear up. She and Valerie Bogar agreed that this first class went very well despite the additional challenges of a pandemic, and will be a memorable one.
“It’s a great beginning for us,” Valerie Bogar said. “I like that we just started slow, and we will always remember this class. Twenty years down the road this is our first graduation class.”
Youth Village plans to accept 65 children for the next school year, and Valerie Bogar said they are excited for what is to come. Nellie Bogar said she hopes to continue growing the organization, and maybe one day branch out into different areas, but they are here to stay in Fort Walton Beach.
“They need us here, so this is where we are. This is where we’re going to stay,” Nellie Bogar said. “And we’ve seen so many of them grow up. The kids come back and their kids come back. It’s the circle of life.”
Registration for the 2021-2022 school year is open and spots are filling up fast. “People are calling daily,” Nellie Bogar said.
To find out more information about Youth Village and the programs the organization offers, or to register, visit https://ouryouthvillage.org/.
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