The Lighthouse for Children, a project of First 5 Fresno County, opened Friday in downtown Fresno after years of discussion and occasional bickering over its cost and design.
The three-story building features large, modern classrooms with play areas and a bathroom, an outdoor, hilly playground in a courtyard area where preschoolers can make music with chimes and play on swings and a slide, conference rooms for adult classes and other meeting space.
The $15 million downtown building at Tulare and N streets, south of the main branch of the Fresno County Library, became controversial because of its size, design, price and questions about who would be served. The issues led to the resignation of First 5’s executive director, Kendra Rogers, last July because of conflicts with county supervisors, and the agency’s board makeup was reconfigured.
But all of that was forgotten on Friday, which was about “celebrating the future of our children in our county,” said Supervisor Henry R. Perea, chairman of the Children and Families Commission that oversees First 5. Perea was among the supervisors concerned about the original building plans, but he said those issues were worked out.
The Lighthouse for Children, he said, will be a clearinghouse for direct family services and a think tank for the needs of young families. Perea said the Lighthouse will provide child care for all segments of the community and lead in research projects, such as an ongoing study about Fresno County’s high black infant mortality rate.
“The First 5 board identified that as a major public health issue, and we’re taking the lead in finding the root causes and providing resources to impact it in a positive way,” Perea said.
The Lighthouse also will improve skills of preschool teachers, help families learn about child development and offer college students opportunities to participate in child-care programs. The building also is a child-care center, serving 88 children in first-floor classrooms.
Lease space also is available for programs that directly serve children, and money earned through those leases will pay for child care and other services, Perea said.
The Lighthouse, Perea said, is “a bold vision for Fresno County.”
The new building also will house Fresno County Office of Education departments as well, including Early Childhood Education, special needs, infants and toddlers and foster care.
Fresno County Office of Education Superintendent Jim Yovino said the Lighthouse was a concept education officials were envisioning when a voluntary preschool effort started eight years ago in Fresno County.
“The building is fantastic, but it’s what is going to happen inside this building, it’s about changing the lives of children in our Valley,” Yovino said. “This is an opportunity for Fresno to say ‘look, we are important, our kids are important, our Valley is important and we will do everything we can to ensure that every child will have an equal opportunity to a great education.’ ”
Emilia Reyes, executive director of First 5, said that the building will be powered by solar panels, cutting the agency’s electricity costs to nearly nothing.
Reyes briefly told her story to the audience of about 200 gathered outside the building. Her father, who migrated to Mendota from Mexico, was her role model, a man who frequently worked six or seven days a week to provide for his family. She reminded her nieces, who were in the audience, that with educational opportunities such as those provided by the Lighthouse for Children, they can have bright futures.
First 5 Fresno County is an independent agency that seeks to bolster health and education programs for children from birth to age 5 and their families. It’s funded by California’s tobacco tax and has a budget this year of around $11 million.