When COVID-19 hit the Bay Area earlier this year, the staff at Brighter Beginnings transformed their organization into a sort of emergency center.

Brighter Beginnings, which offers a Head Start early education program to help families prepare their young kids to be successful in school and provides basic medical services at its clinics, started providing a wider array of services as the region shut down.

“We turned our offices into a mini food bank,” said Angelica Ayala, senior program manager for the Head Start programs at Brighter Beginnings. The staff worked to do safe drop-offs of food, diapers and other supplies that families needed, and they helped families file for unemployment.

It was a huge challenge, Ayala explained. At a time when families need the services of the organization more than ever, the dangers of the virus make coordinating logistics harder than ever.

But the staff has continued on, finding ways — from the diaper and food drop-offs, to procuring gift cards so clients could buy necessities — to help families grapple with the health crisis and turn their early education programs into something they could do virtually, with the help of video chats and phone calls.

Brighter Beginnings has received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves disadvantaged residents in the East Bay. Donations will help support 41 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

During the holiday season, the organization’s Adopt-a-Family program connects low-income families with donors who buy gift cards so the families can purchase holiday gifts and necessities. The need is so great, the Share the Spirit grant will be used to purchase gift cards for families that do not get adopted so they can still have a nice holiday.

Juanita Lopez, a client of Brighter Beginnings and mother of four, said through a translator that the Adopt-a-Family program will be a huge help — otherwise, she might not be able to provide the gifts her children want for Christmas.

She said she is grateful for all the support she has received. She said she was scared to go out as the pandemic swept the area. Deliveries of food and diapers have meant she can be home with her kids, and have removed the burden of paying for some of those necessities.

The pairing of critical services and early education support was not new for Brighter Beginnings.

Before the pandemic, parent-child instructors would meet weekly with families, providing early education through both home and group visits at the organization’s Oakland center. The sessions would include parent education, parent-child activities and group socialization.

Lopez’s favorite part about the Head Start program was going to the local library or to a nearby park with her kids to meet with her parent educator, or taking her two youngest — ages 6 months and 4 years — to the Brighter Beginnings’ family center in Oakland.

“I like it because it’s encouraging to practice colors, numbers — whatever to advance my child’s development,” she said through a translator.

She also enjoyed sitting with parent-child educators who worked with her as she helped her kids master those skills, she said.

The organization’s educators also tailor family plans to help clients with their most dire needs, including connecting families to health services.

“When you’re dealing with high-risk families, you can’t engage in a fun way when Mom and Dad are worried about putting food on the table,” Ayala said. They might not be able to carry out a homework assignment with their kids if “they’re worried about survival,” she said.

The program has adapted over the years to focus on the whole family: making sure they have basic medical services and assistance with finances or necessities like food or diapers, as well as providing early childhood education to prepare kids for school.

That and its other support services continue to be crucial as the fallout of the pandemic continues.

Ayala’s team has been working to adjust to what has become a new normal in the age of COVID: trying to boost kids’ educational development as they did before the pandemic struck, but now through Zoom meetings and phone calls. That means sometimes providing tech support to guide parents or dropping off craft materials they can do with their kids at home.

Ayala said her team is also planning ahead as they grapple with the changes that COVID has brought. There’s a sense of grief and loss for both the staff and clients — Brighter Beginnings’ head start program works with 108 families — when they can’t gather together at the family center like they once did, she said.

She’s hopeful, however, as they start to figure out how to do socially distanced visits or gatherings in a safe way.

Of the organization’s overall mission, Ayala said, “It instills hope.”

Share the Spirit

The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, funds nonprofit holiday and outreach programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

To make a tax-deductible contribution, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate. Readers with questions, and individuals or businesses interested in making grants or contributions, may contact the Share the Spirit program at 925-472-5760 or sharethespirit@crisis-center.org.


By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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