A group of East End Latino toddlers is getting a weekly music, art and English lesson in an unlikely place — over the hum of dryers and behind a row of washing machines at a Southampton laundromat.
The children are part of the Children’s Museum of the East End’s new "Lavar y Jugar" — or wash and play — program held at the newly opened Snow White Laundry on County Road 39. It features reading, singing, dancing and playing and is part of the various ways the Bridgehampton museum has reached out to the South Fork’s Spanish-speaking community.
The sessions are about an hour and are held on Mondays at 10 a.m.
“The program serves families who may not know about the children’s museum in a place where they are,” said Leah Oppenheimer, program founder and the museum’s director of community outreach. “It’s really a preschool experience at the laundromat.”
Lavar y Jugar, which began in mid-October, is targeted at Spanish-speaking children up to 3 years old as well as their parents, but all are free to join. Oppenheimer and two instructors provide toys and books and sing songs such as the "Wheels on the Bus" in Spanish and English. Parents, typically moms, are free to wash, dry and fold their clothes or join in on the fun.
About 20% of Southampton Town is Hispanic, according to 2018 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. One-third of the museum’s 75,000 annual visitors are Latino, and other outreach initiatives include the science-based after-school program Ciencia en CMEE, or Science at the Children's Museum of the East End, and an annual “feria,” or fair, to celebrate East End Latino culture.
Though some Latino immigrants on the South Fork work as landscapers or house cleaners at multimillion-dollar Hamptons estates, they often struggle financially to provide enrichment programs for their children, Oppenheimer said.
“We’ve had families in the past who couldn’t afford crayons,” she said.
Lavar y Jugar, which does not charge participants, is the first group experience for some of its young students, she said.
Joseph Barros, 3, was shy attending his first class, but by the third session he enthusiastically shook a tambourine and a plastic huevo, or egg, above his head.
“He loves it,” said his mother, Nancy Tenesaca, of Southampton. “He says, ‘I don’t want to go to the baby-sitter. I want to go to escuelita,' ” which translates to "little school."
The instructors, Esperanza Rojas and Monica Landi, said they have both entered their children in the museum’s various programs and watched them thrive.
“I believe in this project,” said Rojas, who is originally from Mexico, lives in Hampton Bays and works primarily as a housekeeper. “It’s amazing, the brains of little kids. They all learn so fast, even the babies.”
The program costs $25,500 to run per year, mostly for supplies and an honorarium for the instructors. It is partially funded by The Southampton Bath & Tennis Club Charitable Fund, and the museum is raising additional money to pay for and expand the program. The laundromat does not charge rent.
Oppenheimer said she got the idea for the program after watching a PBS NewsHour segment on similar initiatives, one of which was administered by the Clinton Foundation. It made perfect sense, she said.
“Everyone has to wash their clothes,” Oppenheimer said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Joseph Barros' name.
The Children's Museum of the East End
The nonprofit operates on a $1.5 million annual budget
It welcomes 75,000 visitors annually
The museum features 7,000 square feet of exhibit space in Bridgehampton
The museum is looking for space to open a satellite campus in Riverside, which is the most economically distressed community on Long Island, according to Southampton Town officials