Family Umbrella Group looks to re-expand reach

When San Juan Island families need preschool funds, a local nonprofit supplies a canopy of protection.

The Family Umbrella Group has provided preschool scholarships for island families for two decades, but a recent lapse in volunteers is punching holes in the organization.

“Without this group, there would be a number of children who would not be able to go to preschool,” said the organization’s president Brian Moore. “We really fill a void in the community.”

That space was nearly left open when the nonprofit’s volunteers were forced to cancel their annual spring luncheon last April due to a lack of help. Since the cancellation, past volunteers are rejoining the organization to re-open the umbrella for locals.

Last year, 17 families were awarded nearly $19,000 to use at four qualifying local preschools. A large portion of last year’s donations came from the local Rotary Club and the San Juan Island Community Foundation, but the annual luncheon has always created a consistent revenue stream, explained Moore.

“It is our primary source of funding,” he said. “Just a handful of us can’t pull it off.”

Each year since 1998, the Family Umbrella Groups has awarded scholarships for island children to attend preschool. Scholarships are awarded based on how much money the family earns and can be used at local preschools that have qualified as recipients. Private preschools receive the scholarships directly, as opposed to the families. Other programs, like at the local Head Start, can provide federal assistance.

Janice Otto, owner and teacher at Children’s House Montessori School on Park Street, said she has seven current Family Umbrella Group scholarship recipients out of her 25 students.

“Many parents have told me if it weren’t for the scholarships, they couldn’t send their kids to preschool,” she said.

According to Otto, it costs $300 a month to attend her school in the morning and $360 in the afternoon, Mondays through Thursdays, and there’s also a full-time option. Before the Family Umbrella Group began, Otto said she tried to provide scholarships, but the school’s budget couldn’t sustain the offerings.

Children from higher-income families are more likely to attend preschool than lower-income children, according to a recent report by researchers from colleges like Georgetown University and Duke University.

The report, titled “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects,” also states that early-life experience shapes brain development and adding certain experiences into early education programs sets children up for successes throughout life.

Without the local funds for preschool, echoed Otto, a crucial part of children’s development would be missing.

“There’s their ABCs and their 123s, but what they are really learning is to share, resolve problems peacefully and be in a new space by themselves,” said Otto.

To ensure island kids receive this social development, Moore said volunteers are working to reschedule the annual luncheon in the fall or winter. Last year, about 150 people sold out the event, which included more than 100 silent auction items, as well as a live auction. He’s hoping the newly energized crew can re-stretch the umbrella throughout the island.

“We can’t let it fail,” said Moore, about the Family Umbrella Group. “We do a lot of good for the community.”