By GEEARS & United Way of Greater Atlanta
Last month, quarterback Matt Ryan, a virtual Mayor Andre Dickens, and a host of community members and children cut the ribbon on a new learning space at the Simpson Street Church of Christ.
The Simpson Street Learning Space is a free community play and learn program serving children, birth to five, and their caregivers. Its founding was made possible by support from Ryan’s foundation, ATL: Advance the Lives, and United Way of Greater Atlanta in partnership with PAACT: Promise All Atlanta Children Thrive, a GEEARS initiative. It was led by West Atlanta Community Outreach (WACO).
A standing-room crowd—including many children decked out in Falcons jerseys—filled the church lobby where they were welcomed by GEEARS: Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students executive director, Mindy Binderman, GEEARS board chair, Stephanie Blank, and PAACT director, Brittany Collins.
Everyone in attendance learned more about what a Learning Space is and why it’s an essential early education resource for neighborhood families with young children.
As Mayor Dickens explained in a pre-recorded speech shown to grand opening guests, “This is a great solution for families with young children, when full-time child care or preschool is not the right fit. The young ones come for a morning session with their caregivers and it’s a one-stop-shop. The kids play together, and the caregivers get to connect with other adults. The caregivers are able to access services like visiting a food pantry or getting information on immunizations. Each space is designed to suit the needs of its neighborhood.”
Byron Amos, the city council member who represents Simpson Street’s District 3, said he was excited about the early education offered in the Learning Space.
“When I was on the board of education,” he recalled, “we talked about the summer slide. Well, imagine the summer slide taking place between zero and four or five years old by the time they reach traditional public education. That is what generations of Black and brown, underserved, underprivileged children have been caught up in. But, no more! GEEARS, ATL, Matt Ryan—everybody in this room is going to make that change.”
Ryan—who attended the grand opening with his wife and foundation co-founder, Sarah, as well as ATL program director, Taylor Stanley—also spoke to the crowd before heading upstairs to cut a ribbon in the Learning Space door with the help of four-year-old Gabrielle Taylor.
“I know, as parents of young boys, how difficult it can be to raise children between that zero- and five-year-old space,” he admitted, getting a laugh of recognition from the attendees. “I think a space like this today, where there’s flexibility and is something unique . . . can help make a big impact on children between zero and five. I’d also say that we’re really proud and fired-up to support and partner with PAACT. I think our mission statements are very similar. And I think . . . it’s good that if we all pull our weight in our community, we can make it a better place.”
While the adults in the room may have been starstruck by Ryan’s presence, the kids just wanted to play. In the learning space, they dug into Lego bins, pretended in a toy kitchen, and sang songs with a facilitator before gathering around Ryan, who read them the Mayor’s Summer Reading Club book, Atlanta, My Home.
“Language and literacy are our biggest focus,” noted the space’s lead facilitator, Sharon Hudgins-Beck. “When families come here, they learn what they can do at home, so kids are ready to learn.”
The joy, and the stories, of the morning proved that at its essence, a Learning Space is about a community coming together; that this will be a place for families to play and socialize, to give and receive support, to share joyful moments, big and small. Most of all, The Simpson Street Learning Space will help young children receive a high-quality early education which lays the foundation for lifelong success.
“During the first three years of life, emotionally nourishing relationships lay the foundation for lifelong health and well-being. Unfortunately, most of these vulnerable children are not in formal child care, nor connected to systems of support for positive development,” says Milton J. Little, Jr. President and CEO of United Way of Greater Atlanta. “We’re proud – along with our partners – to serve the community with the Simpson Street Learning Space to meet the developmental needs of young children and support the families, friends, or neighbors who care for them.”
For more information on how to participate across Atlanta locations, please visit https://www.unitedwayatlanta.org/learning-spaces/.