”Just the feeling when I came through the door felt welcoming,” said Benita Garner of Bright Beginnings, a District nonprofit that offers childcare and preschool to children from homeless families. Her son Dean, 6, is a graduate and his siblings go there now. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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"If the parents aren't stable, the children can't be."

Benita Garner had neatly distilled into nine words the philosophy of Bright Beginnings, a unique preschool on M Street NW near North Capitol Street.

When a family is poor or homeless — or is just one financial calamity away from losing its home — it is often the children who suffer the most. They grow up experiencing the trauma that poverty visits upon its victims. They risk falling behind before they've even started.

That's what Bright Beginnings, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, tries to prevent.

Garner's son Dean started at Bright Beginnings when he was 18 months old. At the time, the family didn't quite fit the image many people have of homelessness. They were never living on the streets or in a shelter. But they were certainly on thin ice.

While caring for her sick mother, Benita had to give up her job working the night shift at a post office. Money got tight, and she and her kids ended up crashing with various friends and family members.

"I was used to having my own household, and here I was living with people," she said. "You know, you kind of overstay your welcome." (She and a friend now share a house in Northeast.)

Garner learned about Bright Beginnings and toured its facility. It's one of several social service groups that share space in the Perry School, a building that began life in 1891 as the M Street School, one of the first public high schools for black Washingtonians.

"Just the feeling when I came through the door felt welcoming," Benita said. "I'm like, okay, their mission is to try to do family stability. A lot of people just focus on the kid, but they focus on the whole family. That was a plus for me."

Parents can take advantage of many programs at Bright Beginnings. There are parenting classes, financial literacy classes, yoga classes, a club to learn about healthy eating . . .

"You come in and you have an action plan," Garner said. "They ask you what your goals are . . . They help you go to school if you didn't finish high school and even have some certification classes you can take."

Garner was able to get funds for training to be a medical assistant. In January, with help from Bright Beginnings, she will start classes at the University of the District of Columbia to become a child-development associate. She has spent so much time volunteering at Bright Beginnings that she feels her future is in the classroom.

"I can intern here, then get job employment here," she said.

Bright Beginnings has about 90 children in nine classrooms: six for early Head Start (infants to 3-year-olds) and three for Head Start (3- to 5-year-olds). The hours are 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., allowing parents to go to school or hold a job.

"You think 'day care' and you think it's just watching kids sleep and run around," Garner said. "No, it was structured. There was literally like a schedule on the board."

Yasmin Shaffi, the education director at Bright Beginnings, said the goal is to make sure their young graduates are ready for kindergarten. That means teaching them their letters and numbers, but it also means getting them comfortable in the classroom.

"We want children to be excited about learning — really get them motivated and curious," Shaffi said.

Dean graduated from Bright Beginnings in 2015. When we met, we discussed books — Dean's favorites are "The Giving Tree" and "Supertruck," about a garbage truck that helps deliver mail in a snowstorm — and what he learned at Bright Beginnings.

"I learned how to show respect and be gentle and how to be responsible," said Dean, a very thoughtful 6-year-old.

We were at Bright Beginnings — his brother Clint, 4, and sister Taylor, 2, go there now — and I asked him how his old school compared with his new one, where he's in first grade.

Dean paused before answering, weighing his words carefully.

"I like this school," he said, "but I like being in first grade."

When I spoke with Shaffi later, I told her what Dean had said.

"I feel very happy to hear that," she said. "It really makes me feel he got the right start."

And that's the whole idea.

A helpful beginning

Your tax-deductible contribution to Bright Beginnings can help more kids like Dean. To give, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says "Donate." To give by mail, make a check payable to "Bright Beginnings" and send it to: Bright Beginnings, ATTN: Helping Hand, 128 M St. NW, Suite 150, Washington, D.C. 20001.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.