Kim Baker is program manager at Kidstretch, a preschool in Falls Church, Va., operated by Homestretch, a charity that helps homeless families. (JOHN KELLY/The Washington Post)
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Kim Baker used to be a kindergarten teacher in the well-to-do Loudoun County, Va., town of South Riding, a place where incomes are high, houses are big and children come to school well-rested, well-fed and ready to learn.

Well, most of them, anyway.

“There was one child in my class who came in disheveled, hungry, tired,” Kim said.

It was clear that the boy was having difficulties at home. “He’s 5 years old,” Kim said. “Who is helping him? How is he going to be able to get ahead if he’s struggling so much with some basic self-help needs?”

It was seeing that contrast — poverty in the face of plenty — that spurred Kim to switch gears. She left the school system, earned a master’s degree in social work and in 2005 found a job at Homestretch, a charity that helps homeless families in Fairfax County, Va., and is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. Said Kim: “I wanted to go into this field to help children even the playing field a bit, to ensure that all children were having a head start.”

Many Homestretch families are headed by single mothers. Some are immigrants, struggling with English. All are poor and homeless. Homestretch clients work or go to school during the two years they are in the program. While working as a Homestretch case manager, Kim noticed something.

“A lot of families were relying on home day-care providers,” she said. “Home day-care can be fabulous and nurturing, but it’s not a classroom setting. We were finding that kids were going to kindergarten unprepared. They had never been in a classroom before, they didn’t know how to follow a routine, didn’t know how to interact with their peers.”

Like that boy in Kim’s kindergarten class, these children were in danger of falling behind before they’d even started. And so four years ago, Kim helped Homestretch launch a state-licensed, all-day preschool in Falls Church, Va., for 3- to 5-year-olds. It’s called Kidstretch.

When I visited recently, seven pupils were gathered around a teacher. One by one, they approached a whiteboard, adding body parts to a human figure they were drawing. Handmade artwork lined the walls. Puzzles, board games and books were neatly shelved. Oscar, the class’s guinea pig, munched contentedly on his guinea pig chow.

The majority of the Kidstretch slots are held for children in Homestretch families, but the school welcomes other kids, too.

“We are open to the public,” Kim said. “We think it’s much better for the kids to be interacting with all kinds of backgrounds — different economic backgrounds and different cultures.” The cost is roughly $265 a week, with scholarships and subsidies from Fairfax County helping to defray the tuition for Homestretch families.

For many of us, enrolling our children in preschool is something we don’t give much thought to, beyond hoping we can find one. It can be different for Homestretch clients, Kim said.

“We know that a lot of the families coming to us have experienced domestic violence,” she said. “If they’ve experienced abuse at the hands of someone they know, then they’ve lost a lot of trust. To have to turn around and trust a stranger with your child for the day is a big commitment and a big worry for some families.”

Kids aren’t the only ones being taught at Kidstretch. Many parents may not know what happens at a parent-teacher conference, may not know how to advocate for a special-needs child.

Said Kim: “We’re trying not only to train the children, we’re almost training the parents as well.”

Since Kidstretch opened four years ago, a total of 32 Homestretch children have been enrolled. The school has room to open a second 10-pupil classroom if it can get the funding.

As the young scholars excitedly donned their coats for a trip to a playground, I asked Kim what she considered success.

“I would say when they’ve achieved basic self-help skills,” she said. “They’ve learned to interact appropriately with peers and teachers, and they know and understand classroom routines. And we do aim to prepare them academically for kindergarten. We do some pre-reading skills and math skills. We do want them to have a basic foundation of early learning.”

It’s only by building that strong foundation that children born into poverty can hope to construct the same sort of life we want for our children.

You can help

The people at Homestretch know that making sure kids are thriving allows parents to concentrate on making the changes that can improve the entire family’s circumstances. The charity provides on-site child care during the classes and meetings that clients are required to attend. And it has an after-school program for older kids called Teenstretch.

You can support this work by making a donation to Homestretch. To give online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Homestretch” and send it to: Homestretch, 303 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church, Va. 22046, Attn: Nan Monday.

Homestretch, Community of Hope and Sasha Bruce Youthwork are all local charities I hope you will support. So far, Post readers have donated $108,037 towards our Jan. 6 goal of $225,000. Please give!

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.