With books and toys in hand, Sarah Benjamin strides into the homes of Southold Town residents with a smile on her face.
Ms. Benjamin works with families, usually with preschool-aged children, to help prepare both parents and kids for the start of kindergarten through the North Fork Parent-Child Home Program.
Run through Community Action Southold Town, the program began under Ms. Benjamin in 2013. She spends up to two years working with children ages 16 months to 4 years, teaching them valuable life skills before they enter the school system.
“She’s passionate about the work,” CAST director Cathy Demeroto said. “She’s a wonderful advocate for families and she’s a strong advocate for education, particularly early childhood education.”
For her dedication to the children and parents of Southold Town, Ms. Benjamin is The Suffolk Times’ 2017 Educator of the Year.
The goal of the free program is to help children develop reading and literacy skills so they feel more comfortable with their abilities when they enter the formal school system. Studies have shown that children who get the type of home attention Ms. Benjamin provides go on to be more successful in the long-term school program, said CAST board member Denis Noncarrow.
The free program has grown each year, with 48 families currently enrolled, Ms. Demeroto said.
“In speaking to parents and families involved in this they can’t say enough about how it’s changed and made so many kids comfortable with reading and getting ready for school,” Mr. Noncarrow said.
Ms. Demeroto echoed that sentiment, citing the praise Ms. Benjamin receives from the parents she works with.
“The families love her,” Ms. Demeroto said. “She truly believes in the work she does.”
The in-home approach is designed to make education convenient for families facing poverty, language barriers and lack of transportation.
Each family receives a minimum of 46 home visits a year, or 92 over the course of two years. Most visits last a half-hour, according to the national Parent Child Program website.
The program operates in more than 400 communities in the United States as well as in Bermuda, Canada, Ireland and Chile, and received national certification in 2015, its website states.
“She’s really passionate and committed to her families,” Ms. Demeroto said. “She doesn’t just do the program, she supports them if they have other needs in the community and connects them to resources.
She’s just a great support for local families with young children.”
Ms. Benjamin has been involved with CAST for many years, previously serving as executive director before stepping down to focus her energy on the North Fork Parent-Child Home Program.
In addition to visiting participating families, Ms. Benjamin makes sure to secure enough funds to enable the program to continue each year. That includes funding for other volunteers who visit homes and money for materials, such as books and learning games, to use with the children.
Mr. Noncarrow credited Ms. Benjamin’s drive and passion not only for keeping the program intact, but for helping it thrive each year.
“Because of her undying love for these children, nothing will stop this program from being the success it has been,” he said. “Sarah’s a dynamic, energetic person. She impressively took this program from 0 to 100 on the North Fork. She’s just an impressive lady.”