When Susan Brobeck volunteers in the classroom at Bright Beginnings preschool, she knows exactly what the students expect of her.

“I man the cash register, which is really funny with 2-year-olds who have no idea what money is,” Brobeck said.

The school in Southeast Washington has a pretend fast-food restaurant in the dress-up corner. Brobeck, 76, is a retired teacher who once taught at Beauvoir, the primary school on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral. She volunteers at Bright Beginnings most Mondays, where she rings up a lot of imaginary french fries.

“All they want is fries,” she said with a laugh.

Before Brobeck retired, she mainly taught third-graders, children who at 8 had grown into themselves in a way a 2-year-old hasn’t yet. She said she’s been impressed with how the Bright Beginnings teachers help usher their young charges through toddlerhood.

“I can volunteer in the room of the 2-year-olds and be very successful because the teachers are doing the heavy lifting,” she said. “The teachers at Bright Beginnings are amazing at helping children with their feelings. They are amazing at teaching you how to accept your feelings and express them in a way that is healthy for you and the people around you.”

Bright Beginnings was founded in 1990 by the Junior League of Washington. The aim: to provide children from the neediest families — families experiencing homelessness — with the same kind of quality early education as those in wealthier families.

The young brain is a delicate thing. A hungry one, too. A child’s first months and years are critical. Children who grow up in poverty are at a higher risk of being unprepared for kindergarten and never really catching up.

Bright Beginnings helps bridge that gap.

“Trauma has a huge impact on these little kids’ lives,” Brobeck said. “Of course, their parents have been traumatized. All that has implications for your brain development and your ability to learn and thrive. The thing Bright Beginnings does is to support both the kids and the families — and to include the dads.”

The school’s two-generation approach means that while the kids are in school, the parents are supported with counseling, job coaching, life-skills classes and parenting classes.

“I think Bright Beginnings provides the foundation to help them learn about their children and understand them,” said Brobeck, who serves on the school’s board. “That’s a huge thing for these young mothers who haven’t been parents before. It’s a huge step to become a parent and understand this new person that you’re responsible for.”

Brobeck said that success is achieved when a Bright Beginnings family has a place to live that they are able to pay for themselves. Success is when the family isn’t transient and the children aren’t forced to move around from school to school. Success means that a child is ready for the next step: to go to kindergarten and continue to learn.

“I am so impressed by their teachers,” Brobeck said. “They have such skill in a lot of different areas. . . . They also have a wonderful curriculum that’s very creative and open-ended. It helps the children develop vocabulary and understand the world.”

Hey, Susan, don’t sell yourself short. You make a mean imaginary french fry.

You can help

Susan Brobeck’s undergraduate degree is in art history. (Her father, Hermann Williams, was the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.) She taught art in elementary school for a while but felt she could make more of an impact as a classroom teacher.

“You can do everything if you really know the children,” she said. A friend encouraged her to get involved with Bright Beginnings. Brobeck has twice served on the board.

“I’ve been extremely lucky in my life,” she told me. “Things that could have gone wrong, didn’t go wrong. Things that were out of my control happened to my benefit.”

That’s not the case with everyone in this world. And it’s not the case with the families who are part of Bright Beginnings.

Bright Beginnings is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising drive. To give, visit PostHelpingHand.com and click “Donate.”

To contribute by mail, make a check payable to Bright Beginnings and send it to the following address: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 3418 Fourth St. SE, Washington DC 20032.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.