Tots, parents find a room of their own
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
"It was just me and him, and we were driving each other crazy," said Kim Squeri-Rega, who moved to Citrus County from New York six years ago.
But when she looked last fall for a mutual social outlet, she found nothing outside day cares or costly preschools. Undeterred, she happened upon the sparkling new Citrus Springs Community Center, which had activity rooms to spare.
A few newspaper postings and fliers later, Squeri-Rega, 32, formed what she thinks is Citrus Springs' only preschool play group. After just six months, she has 20 kids enrolled, a growing wait list and a fan group of parents.
"It's a neat way to meet a lot of kids, especially in Citrus County, where it's a little harder to find pockets," said enthusiast Thomas Kennedy, who started bringing his shy 31/2-year-old son, Ethan, to the group in November.
"Kim has done a phenomenal job," said the stay-at-home dad. "We've all wanted it, but she's really made the difference."
Many of the small homes once inhabited by aging Northern retirees now are being bought, or rented, by younger families. That means more children need a place to develop skills and play.
Citrus Springs Community Center manager Jessica Sanderson is happy to help fill the niche. After the building opened last August, Sanderson hoped it would not become just a senior center.
"I want it to be open to diverse groups, all the way from young children to the young at heart," Sanderson said. "It's for everyone."
Already, the free play group has had to spread out between Monday and Thursday mornings to keep the classes at about 10 children. Each child is accompanied by an adult for the two-hour session. On Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m., everyone is invited to the park.
Squeri-Rega's formula for success sounds simple enough: provide toys, sing songs, eat snacks and make crafts.
However, she also has had to find businesses willing to donate money for toys and art materials. Wal-Mart, Dr. Alex Villacastin and Holman's Automotive have been generous, she said.
Squeri-Rega, who has an art degree, organizes all the activities strictly on a volunteer basis. As was evident at Thursday morning's lively session, hearty doses of patience and dedication are important ingredients in her strategy. The trendy mother provides just enough energy and good humor to captivate her wiggly audience.
"You put your shamrock in, you take your shamrock out, you put your shamrock in, then you shake it all about," sang mothers, grandmothers, a father and kids on Thursday to the tune of the classic Hokey Pokey. The toddlers waved green paper clovers, supplied by Squeri-Rega in honor of St. Patrick's Day, wildly in the air.
They also practiced the letter M -- milk, mouse, magnet, mermaid -- before singing two rousing renditions of the ABCs. Irene Thomas, 58, taught the wide-eyed group how to form an M in sign language with their little fists.
She regularly brings her 21/2-year-old grandson, Zachery Grenier, to the group, or "goop" as he fondly calls it. Over the past few months, she's watched the children become less possessive of the colorful balls and building blocks and more friendly toward one another, she said.
Those are important skills for the sweet-natured Zachery, who will become a big brother in July.
But many parents said they benefitted from the group as much as their children. The friendly and diverse collection of adults often end up seeing one another at local libraries or playgrounds as well, Kennedy said.
It's appealing enough to keep Sri Deven, 28, driving 20 minutes from Citrus Hills to attend with son Arjun, a 22-month-old with a head of black curls. Yet they are leaving next week for a three-month trip to Deven's native India, which means they'll have to miss a class for the first time.
"He has improved a lot in coming here," she said. "I'm thinking, oh my God, I'm going to miss this for three months."
Not to worry. As long as Squeri-Rega can invent cute art projects like Thursday's leprechaun mask -- which Thomas ended up cutting out while Zachery crawled under the table -- the Citrus Springs mother will continue leading the classes.
She feels lucky to stay home while husband Al Rega works, and she wants to capitalize on Louis' precious developmental years, she said.
"Starting a play group is one of the best things I've ever done," she said. "I feel that I can prepare (Louis) for kindergarten. That's the whole reason I'm staying home, to have him with me as long as possible."
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