Group fundraises for low-income Wacoans

Leslie Lopez is this year's Avance Quinceañera Gala honoree. Born in Austin, Texas, she is the daughter of Mrs. Nanci Suarez Griesse and stepfather, Mr. Timothy Griesse. Leslie is a Midway High School student. Lopez was chosen based on her academic achievements, involvement with Sunday school at St. Mark Lutheran Church and volunteer work. Courtesy Photo

By Rolando Rodriguez Soto, Reporter

Avance promotes parent education and early childhood development for low-income families in Waco to provide new parents with the necessary resources and information for their children. Avance’s Extravaganza and Quinceañera Gala is an opportunity for the community to participate in a multicultural fundraising event from 7 to 11p.m. on Friday at the Baylor Club in McLane Stadium.

Avance, which is the Spanish word meaning “to advance,” is a nonprofit that focuses on a dual approach for parent education and early childhood development. The program offers a curriculum that is complementary between the parents and their children up to three years old.

The third annual Extravaganza and Quinceañera Gala is Avance’s major fundraising event. Each year, the board of directors and the gala committee honor a fifteen-year-old girl that graduated from the Avance program as a child.

The gala features a quinceañera, where the honoree will have a traditional dance, a court and presentation of her crown. Parents and immediate family are invited to attend courtesy of donors that will provide their tables.

During the event, there are fundraising activities such as silent and audible auctions and two piñatas.

Leslie Griesse, this year’s honoree, was chosen because of her academic achievements, involvement with Sunday school at St. Mark Lutheran Church and her volunteer work.

“Avance helped me develop some of my first skills,” Leslie Griesse said. “It is an honor to represent this organization.”

Griesse was born in Austin, and she is the daughter of Mrs. Nanci Suarez Griesse and stepfather, Mr. Timothy Griesse. She is a student at Midway High School.

Nanci Suarez graduated from the parent program over 10 years ago. She started taking English classes and the following year she got her GED. She said Avance helped her feel more confident because they were able to provide resources to continue her education and get a job.

“It is great to know that this program is helping parents become better parents,” Nanci Suarez said. “This program helped me become a better mother. It is an honor and a privilege to represent Avance in the community.”

Reyna Reyes, associate director of Avance, said the nonprofit targets the Hispanic community because Hispanics have been identified as having the highest high school drop out rate within Texas minority groups, but the programs are available to any low-income family that needs help.

Avance’s nine-month dual curriculum that follows Waco Independent School District’s school schedule offers programs such as parent education and interactive literacy activities, educational toy making, community resource speakers and home visitations.

The parent education program offers parents with the necessary information and resources for their child through 27 bilingual lessons, which include topics on early literacy, physical needs, illnesses, health and wellness, nutrition, behavior, language development, emotional and social needs, goal-setting and prenatal needs.

At the end of each class, parents and children come together to participate in an interactive literacy activity that gives the parent the opportunity to understand their child’s behavior to foster early literacy.

“Our goal is to have our kids ready to go into pre-k and kindergarten fully prepared with the right social skills, development skills and self-regulation,” said Jan Wengler, interim president at Avance. “So when they go into WISD, they go in as well prepared students.”

Lidia Burkhart has been an infant instructor at Avance for three years. In her classroom she teaches the alphabet, shapes, colors and a monthly theme. The theme for November is good things to eat and Thanksgiving.

“Working with Avance is a really great experience helping parents,” Burkhart said. “The impact that we have on them when they come for the first time to when we finish at the end of the year has had tremendous changes.”

Avance’s educational toy making class allows parents to create toys that can be used to engage their children in an educational opportunity while also making it fun for the child.

For example, one of the toys parents make is called the “happy-sad pillow.” The pillow features a happy face on one side and a sad face on the other. Since the toy is created with particular design elements, parents can utilize the pillow to teach numbers, cause and effect, colors, emotions, motor skills, social skills and textures.

Each week, Avance invites professionals from the community to provide information and resources to the parents. Previous speakers include the City of Waco Library and Hillcrest to provide information about library cards and how to use car seats.

Avance offers home visitation services to parents participating in the parent-child education program. The goal of the visitations is to assess how well parents and children are learning the curriculum. This also offers Avance the opportunity address social or economic issues before it becomes dangerous for the parent or the child.

Instructors at Avance are required to have teaching certification, but if a parent that graduated from the program is interested in early childhood education, Avance offers job placement within the program as long as they make a commitment to pursue their teaching certificate. This opportunity is only available to graduates of the nine-month parenting class that have a high school diploma or a GED.

Avance Waco opened in 2002 with support of the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation. This year, Avance started a new collaboration with WISD. The nonprofit is now housed in the old Lake Waco Montessori building in north Waco.

“Because all of these kids will be going into WISD, we track their development here, and then they move into the WISD school system hopefully as well prepared kids that can thrive within the school system,” Wengler said.

Avance also partners with McLennan Community College to offer English and GED classes to parents that are currently enrolled in the parent class or have graduated from the program.

For more information about Avance’s Extravaganza and Quinceañera Gala or to volunteer, visit their Facebook page or their website.