This was the sort of thank you that nonprofits dream about.
Amber Gaston, a sophomore at Montclair State University, strode confidently to the podium last week and addressed a packed dining room at the Spring Brook Country Club in Morris Township.
“We’re nothing but thankful, nothing but grateful,” Amber told the Turning Leaves gala of Preschool Advantage, the Morristown nonprofit that subsidized her pre-kindergarten education at a local Montessori school.
That investment appears to be paying dividends. Amber has been invited to join an honors society. She holds down a part-time job on campus and works in a Rockaway real estate office. She also is a member of the NAACP, and of the university’s Biology Club. Her goal is to become a gynecologist; soon, she will volunteer at a women’s center and at Planned Parenthood.
Amber credited her preschool days with setting the tone.
“I feel that by going there, it just made me a cut above the rest. It gave me the tools I needed to be a great student, and really know what was important, and how to keep my priorities in order. It really gave me what I needed,” she said.
Amber is among 700 children from needy families who have been helped by Preschool Advantage, which started as Project Acorn in 1995.
Her success makes her a poster child for early education, and underscores why friends of Preschool Advantage ponied up more than $180,000 for Thursday’s fundraiser, according to Karen Titterton, the program’s executive director.
CLOSING THE GAP
A Stanford study reported by the New York Times last week found a sizable language gap between young children of affluent and poor parents. Proponents of early education contend that preschool can narrow this gap.
President Obama has proposed federal aid to match state funding to send all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate income households to preschool. Opponents counter that high-quality preschool programs are scarce, and the money would be better spent on K-12 education.
Supporters of Preschool Advantage point to students like Amber as proof that starting early makes all the difference.
“The advantage of a preschool education is irrefutable,” said Kim Wentworth, who was honored with her husband, Finn Wentworth, at Thursday’s gala.
The organization also recognized the nursery school of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown and its director, Katherine Henckler.
Guests paid $175 to dine on autumn butternut bisque, seared free range chicken and chocolate-covered strawberries. An electric kiddie car sold for $300 at a silent auction that also offered a giant stuffed giraffe and a chauffeured trip to Late Night with David Letterman, among other items. Leaves hung from a “giving tree” raised up to $4,000 apiece.
Please click icon below for captions.
‘EXTREMELY HARD WORK’
Kim Wentworth described Preschool Advantage as a lean operation, run by two staffers who partner with 18 preschools across Morris County. A key to success, she said, is a board that screens applicants thoroughly.
“The process of deciding who will receive funding is based on identifying those parents who are invested in their children, which is extremely hard work,” Kim said.
Finn Wentworth, founder of Normandy Real Estate Partners and former president of YankeeNets LLC, said he comes from a family of 10 children and has 47 nieces and nephews, mostly in Morris County and spanning different economic strata.
“We need to strengthen education, for the future of our county,” he said.
When Project Acorn began, founders Stuart and Jill Lasser sponsored preschool for a couple of underprivileged children. Then they sought nonprofit status.
“I said, ‘Maybe we can do 1,000 kids.’ We looked at each other and laughed,” recounted Stuart.
“Now, it looks like we’re going to get there.”
PICASSO, FRENCH AND GEOGRAPHY
With help from Preschool Advantage, Pamela and Ricky Osborne sent both of their daughters to preschool.
“Things were tough then,” said Ricky, now the dean of students at Frelinghuysen Middle School. “Now we’re on the other end, and can begin to invest in other kids’ lives.”
Keyona Osborne graduated last year from Elon University. Krystal is a senior at Old Dominion.
“They went to a Montessori school that made them value education early on in life. They got a great start,” Pamela Osborne said.
Amber Gaston agreed.
“As a preschooler, I was so cultured. Because they taught us things like Picasso, Van Gogh. We were speaking French. We knew about geography and how the seasons worked. My mom always said that I used to spit out little facts and tell her things, and now she jokes that as a preschooler I read more books than she read in her whole life,” Amber said, as her mom, Toni, watched with pride.
A single mother, Toni earned just enough to support them without government help. But she could not afford preschool.
“When I was a baby my Mom moved her whole life to Morristown so I could have a better one,” Amber said. “She wanted me to have a life of opportunity, and a bright future.”
Preschool Advantage was the first opportunity.
MORE ABOUT PRESCHOOL ADVANTAGE