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Originally published December 24, 2012 at 5:38 PM | Page modified January 2, 2013 at 8:01 AM

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Atlantic Street Center helps children learn despite trauma, turmoil

Instilling a love of learning is the core mission of the Atlantic Street Center, a nearly 103-year-old nonprofit that aims to help children succeed in school while supporting their parents and offering mental-health counseling for families dealing with post-traumatic stress, behavioral and emotional problems, self-esteem issues or academic underachievement.

Seattle Times staff reporter

About the series

Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a select group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the fall and winter, The Times will write about the difference these organizations make in the lives of thousands and the impact those who give to the fund can make.

The Atlantic Street Center serves low-income children and youth of color in Seattle's central and southeast neighborhoods, providing educational services and intensive therapy to help family members create stable, healthy relationships. More than 3,000 youth and their families are served each year, and all services are free to participants.

For information:

Your dollars at work

$20: One-week supply of formula for one baby

$50: Pays a month of transportation costs for one teen parent to get to school or work by bus

$100: Buys a one-month supply of diapers for a teen parent

Source: Atlantic Street Center

Lines were forgotten, props were dropped and little heads kept popping up inside the plywood puppet theater, turning performances of "The Three Little Pigs" and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" into a noisy, hilarious spectacle only a group of elementary-school kids can create.

The children are from immigrant families living in New Holly, a South Seattle community rich in diversity but rife with poverty and gang violence. Most had never even seen a puppet show, except maybe on TV.

With the help of teenage and adult volunteers, the kids built the theater, glued tissue paper and bits of material onto a canvas backdrop and made cloth hand-puppets — all while learning math, language skills, teamwork and creative self-expression.

"The kids spray-painted it, glued it, clamped it and drilled in the screws. It was quite an adventure," said volunteer Denice Fischer-Fortier, whose idea it was to stage a puppet show as a way "to engage them in a complex project" that married academics with hands-on experience.

Instilling a love of learning is the core mission of the Atlantic Street Center, a nearly 103-year-old nonprofit that aims to help children succeed in school while supporting their parents and offering mental-health counseling for families dealing with post-traumatic stress, behavioral and emotional problems, self-esteem issues or academic underachievement.

The agency, one of 12 organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, has had to cut staff and programs over the past four years as funds were stretched thin during hard economic times. It will soon shutter its Youth and Family Center in New Holly and will be transferring and consolidating programs offered through its Rainier Beach Family Center, which was forced to relocate to Columbia City in recent years.

"We need a space in Southeast Seattle to be closer to the people we need to serve," said Edith Elion, the center's executive director, who first walked into the Atlantic Street Center 36 years ago as a volunteer graduate student from the University of Washington. "We have to make do, so we are making do. But I feel like things are on the upswing now."

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and the Atlantic Street Center has been in the business of village-building since it first opened its doors in 1910 as a settlement house for poor Italian immigrants who settled in what is now Seattle's Central District. Later, African Americans, who were barred from living in certain sections of Seattle due to racist housing rules that remained in effect until the late 1960s, came to dominate the neighborhood.

The population the center now serves "has literally moved south" into Rainier Valley, Skyway, Renton and other South King County neighborhoods, Elion said. Most of the families are headed by single mothers living in poverty.

Immigrants and refugees from East Africa and Southeast Asia are increasingly seeking help from the Atlantic Street Center, which offers myriad services aimed at meeting families' basic needs — like keeping the lights on or applying for food stamps — as well as providing safe, stable environments where parents as well as their children are supported and nurtured.

The Atlantic Street Center serves more than 3,000 kids — preschoolers to high schoolers — and their families each year.

The driving philosophy behind everything the center does is guided by the idea that the best way to make sure kids' needs are being met is to ensure the adults in their lives aren't merely surviving, Elion said.

In Southeast Seattle, only 50 percent of children of color, especially African Americans, graduate from high school on time.

"It's just atrocious we have such low achievement," said Elion.

Helping kids succeed in school and exposing them to different ideas, cultures and career paths, allows them to grow up to make better choices for themselves — and break the cycle of poverty and despair, she said.

The center, which collaborates with Seattle Public Schools, Seattle Children's hospital, United Way of King County and other local agencies, offers classes in parenting, life skills, citizenship, English as a second language and health.

The center also offers group and individual counseling, teen-parent support groups, a summer academic academy staffed by certified teachers and Family Study Time, where kids can get help with their homework.

Twice a week for the past three years, Mekiya Ali has been bringing her two children to Family Study nights at the New Holly Youth and Family Center, where both kids recently participated in the puppet show. Ali, who is from Ethiopia, said volunteers at the center helped her improve her English-reading skills while 11-year-old Jamal Ahmed and 6-year-old Ibtisam Ahmed, both students at Wing Luke Elementary School, have grown more confident in their studies.

When Jamal was younger, Ali said, she could help her son with his homework. "But after the third and fourth grades, it becomes harder and I don't know exactly what to do," she said. The homework help has been a blessing, and even Jamal's teacher has seen a vast improvement in her son's math skills, Ali said.

"Sometimes if I'm sick or I'm tired after work, I don't want to come and they cry. Really. They say, 'No, we have to go,' " said Ali, 28.

Married at 15, Ali said she dreamed of becoming a nurse but never had the opportunity to pursue an education. She wants a different future for her children.

"I will try hard to make them something. I tell them to work hard, to go to school. I tell them what education means. I want them to be someone," she said.

It appears to be paying off. Jamal, now in fifth grade, wants to be a doctor and so does his little sister.

"The harder you work, the smarter you get," Jamal said.

Munye Jeylani, a truck driver who escaped his native Somalia when civil war broke out in the early 1990s, said it used to be a struggle to get his children to do their homework. But after bringing his four youngest children to the center for the past couple of years and enrolling them in summer tutoring sessions, Jeylani said his children now come home from school, have a snack and get down to work.

His 8-year-old son, Tarik, is now reading at grade level and daughter Anaam, 7, is far more focused in class, he said.

"They have two days to come here and they can't wait, they're so excited and into the program and learning," Jeylani said. "On the other three (week)days, they help each other.

"They're growing and understanding this is a benefit for them."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or

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