Lori Fascilla is on a mission to elevate families and, in her spare time, the entire education system
Thirty years ago, Lori Fascilla was a statistic. Divorced, on her own, struggling to provide her 2-year-old son with the childhood she knew he deserved.
”I enrolled him at the best (childcare) center I could afford… and it was substandard at best,” Lori says. “It was excruciating to leave him there everyday. I already had a sense of failure and that just added to it.”
Lori, a public school teacher, decided the only option left was for her to become an early education teacher for “a while,” at a center where she could bring her son along. She wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the profession.
“All this magic happens in those first five years,” she says passionately and often. “ If you want stronger students, you need stronger babies and stronger families … and that’s the stuff I love to be a part of.”
In 1991, Lori was asked to take over as executive director of Giraffe Laugh, a nonprofit childcare center focused as much on helping the parents as the children. Today, Giraffe Laugh has three Treasure Valley locations where Lori works to help parents in the same situation where she once found herself.
“I loved the fact that there were scholarships for moms like myself,” Lori says of her decision to take over Giraffe Laugh. “And I loved our tagline, which is, ‘We can see the future from here.’ And we can.”
For 25 years, Lori and the team at Giraffe Laugh have devoted their lives to the education of young children. And not just children whose parents can afford it — all children.
“We embrace all families,” says Lori. “Our parents know the homeless families in the area because they come pick their children up at our centers. I think sometimes people are baffled, wondering, ‘Why are they saying hello to those homeless people I see on the corner?’ But it’s because their children are together… and doesn’t that just elevate all of us?”
At Giraffe Laugh, parents have access to a wealth of resources to help them provide for their families, from leads on housing subsidies to parenting classes. The centers maintain a partnership with The Idaho Foodbank and, when grant funding is available, crop shares for fresh produce.
“Kids are hungry. And if they’re hungry, they’re not learning, they’re not happy … and they’re not developing normally,” says Lori.
But, she emphasizes, Giraffe Laugh families come from all walks of life. Some children come from wealthy families, some from other cultures entirely. In fact, nine different languages are represented across Giraffe Laugh’s three campuses in downtown Boise, the North End and Marian Pritchett High School.
This diverse mix helps combat the “word gap,” Lori says. Children from low-income families will hear 30 million fewer words before age 4 than their peers from higher income situations. Enrolling kids from all demographics allows them to learn from each other, she explains.
But the word gap isn’t the only problem facing early childhood education in Idaho. As it stands now, only 54 percent of Idaho children are ready for kindergarten-level work when they enter school.
“When kids start behind, they stay behind,” Lori says. “And we can predict based on kindergarten readiness who’s going to finish high school. … And by third grade, we can predict, based on reading levels, our prison population. Those percentages have a direct correlation.”
Idaho is currently one of only five states in the nation that don’t require kindergarten and one of only six with no state-funded preschool. But Lori is hopeful change is on the horizon, in the form of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who she says is waking up to the importance of early childhood education.
“If we could all collaborate and get in the same room and agree … then wouldn’t that be a nice little miracle?”
Change is also on the horizon for Giraffe Laugh. If all goes according to plan, Lori and her team will open a fourth center this summer. Although the location hasn’t been finalized, she says the new facility will be critical to addressing Giraffe Laugh’s greatest challenge: the 550 children currently on their waiting list.
“The demand is just so much greater than the supply,” Lori says. “They’re aging off (the list) everyday … so that’s probably our greatest focus right now is being able to provide for more children.”
But like she is with most things, Lori is hopeful. Hopeful that the state government will understand the drastic need for early childhood education programs. Hopeful that the families on the waiting list will find another center that meets their needs. Hopeful that, as more people learn about and support Giraffe Laugh’s mission, she’ll be able to yes much more often.
“If money were no object, we would definitely go statewide,” she says confidently. “We would have every one of those kids off the waiting list. We would never have to say no.”
Note: Learn more about Lori and Giraffe Laugh Early Learning Centers at giraffelaugh.org.
Photography by Mike Kerby