The brown-eyed son of Yuri Diaz and James Mark picked up a toy cash register, popped open the money tray and doled out play dollars to his mom, 26, watching with wonder. He counted out change — for an imaginary order of chicken nuggets and fries.
"It's helping in many ways," his Spanish-speaking mother said through her husband, James, 27.
The rehabilitated school bus, painted a cheerful sea-blue on the outside and filled with benches, play tables and shelves of books, toys and other teaching aids, is the most visible — and most fun — program offered by the Early Learning Coalition of Lake County, one of many nonprofit agencies in Central Florida supported by the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund Holiday Campaign.
Tonya Martin, an early-childhood specialist and the Big Blue Bus driver, said when kids climb aboard, they say, "Wow!"
The coalition aims to prepare Lake County children for their first year of school, a mission underscored by the summary of a recent Harvard study that concluded that the more children learn in kindergarten, the more they earn as adults.
The rolling classroom, which also visits health fairs, community festivals and back-to-school events to reach children from disadvantaged families, served more than 2,800 preschoolers last year. Those youngsters likely would not have had the opportunity to learn and play with computers and other advanced literacy materials.
"It provides an important jump-start," said Lesha Buchbinder, the coalition's executive director.
Kevin's parents said he benefits not only from hands-on play and math, science and other school lessons on the bus, but also from interaction with kids his own age.
"That's important, too," said his father, who pointed out that no other children live on their dead-end street.
The family had lived in a modest house in a tree-lined and kid-filled neighborhood until the economy soured and the construction industry collapsed. Yuri, who also worked at the lumberyard, lost her job, James' pay was cut, and the couple lost their home to foreclosure.
"We're in a hard time but getting by," James said.
They are grateful now to live in the two-bedroom trailer, immaculately clean and warmly decorated for the holidays. A cotton-ball snowman brightens the door of Kevin's room, which is filled with miniature cars and "Toy Story" figures, all rescued from secondhand shops. Pet parakeets provide happy background chatter.
As his visit to the Big Blue Bus was winding down, Kevin peered intently through the lenses of the toy microscope. He said he thought he was looking at stars.
His mother said the Big Blue Bus may help her son shine as bright as the lights in the sky someday, maybe as a NASA engineer, an astronaut or a scientist.
With education, she knows, not even the sky's the limit.
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