In a North Waco Annex classroom earlier this month several Hispanic women made Easter baskets out of recycled plastic milk jugs, fabric and odd-ends during an Avance Waco parent-ed class.

They chatted happily as their baskets took form. Cheerful Latin music played softly in the background. All seemed content as their children were entertained and also learning in nearby classrooms.

Juana Camarillo stitched pink material onto the jug as her adult daughter, Alejandra Osorio, watched her intently. Osorio admitted to me that she lacks sewing skills (something I can relate to) but said she enjoys the company of these women and the valuable variety of information she learns in these weekly classes.

“The kids also learn so much,” said Camarillo, whose 2-year-old granddaughter played merrily across the hall.

The women in these classes — all primary caregivers of children ages infant to 3 years old — do receive valuable information that will help them be better parents and help prepare their children for school. They get classes in English language; assessments of their children’s cognitive development; teaching tips — like having the children count the number of triangles and identify the shapes and colors on these Easter baskets in English; social and emotional support; and much more during the nine months of classes.

They’re lucky to be here. The waiting list to get into this program is in triple digits and, in this lingering recession, funds to run this program that helps mostly Hispanic families are low.

Foundation grants to Avance Waco were down $50,000 last year and the nonprofit lost $160,000 the year before in federal funds, executive director Jessica Attas Xolalpa said as she gave me a tour of their new digs at the North Waco Annex located at 2015 Alexander Ave., formerly North Waco Elementary.

With an annual budget of $272,000 and a roof that needed $40,000 in repairs at the old Avance facility on Clay Avenue, Xolalpa was over the moon when Waco Independent School District last month offered free space in the annex. For this struggling nonprofit that has done so much good for our community, this means funds go to programs and helping families advance (as the name means) — not repairing a leaking roof.

“We are so excited and grateful to the district for this collaboration with Waco ISD,” Xolalpa said days after local churches and Baylor student groups helped them pack and move on March 2.

WISD trustees approved it Feb. 28, which Waco ISD Superintendent Bonny Cain told me was a no-brainer since they had closed eight campuses in 2012. This site also hosts the Challenge Academy and special ed. “I told her we don’t have money to give,” Cain said, “but we do have some space they could use.”

Within days, two classrooms for the children were already brightly decorated with stimulating toys and books. Bilingual teachers patiently work with little ones alternating nursery rhymes in Spanish and English. The day I was there, uniformed Waco police Cpl. Sandy Wachsman was explaining to a group of 3-year-olds the dangers of talking to strangers.

For many of these families, this might be the only early education these children get before starting kindergarten. Xolalpa says most will apply to Head Start programs, but with federal funding cut and full-day pre-K funding cut by Texas lawmakers from public school districts statewide, spots are scarce and many are unlikely to get in.

“We try to provide an alternative so these parents know they can provide a learning-rich educational home environment that can help their child arrive at school ready to learn,” she said.

Cain says getting children started early is key to successful academics later on. “Since pre-K funding has been cut, programs like Avance, Head Start and Smart Babies are even more important than before,” she said. “Everybody knows the earlier parents get on board with education, the better it is for all.”

Waco ISD offering this facility not only is a generous gesture but will likely save district resources later down the road because these children now have classroom experience. They know proper behavior. They have English language skills and are familiar with phonics. Likewise, their parents know the importance of being on time and how to communicate effectively with teachers.

“This program doesn’t just benefit these families, it benefits the community,” Xolalpa said, adding that Avance children nationwide have higher graduation rates and many go on to college. “That makes a difference for all of us.”

Indeed it does.

Contact Sandra Sanchez at 757-5723 or