From her hospital bed in Lower Manhattan about to give birth to her first baby, Andrea Sulsona could look out her window and see building rubble still smoldering eight days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center just two blocks away on Sept. 11, 2001.
She didn’t know it then, but the attack and its aftermath were to have a life-changing impact on Sulsona, who was born in Torrance, graduated from UCLA and went to New York City, where she was a middle school teacher in Chinatown before the 9/11 attack.
“It was devastating to see all of that smoke and ash,” Sulsona said. “I was thinking of all the pain it caused so many people, and here I was, going through the pain of delivering my first baby. But my pain was of great joy, just the opposite.”
Instead of returning to the classroom after the birth of her son, John, Sulsona started a new job with Dr. Alan Goodwin, a child psychologist who was doing work with preschool children.
“For almost two years after the attack, I helped teachers and families of preschool children cope with the losses and fear created by the Sept. 11 attack,” she said. “I haven’t looked back.”
For family reasons and the birth of her second son, Alex, Sulsona eventually returned to Long Beach where she worked for several years as a social worker while also publishing Palacio, a bilingual Spanish magazine, and becoming deeply involved with the Kiwanis Club, serving as president one year.
But she kept coming back to what she had learned about preschoolers — that 90% of brain development happens before the age of 5.
“I felt drawn to early childhood education, realizing that if we lay a strong foundation when it matters most, children will have much better odds later in life,” she said.
In 2014, she got her dream job as executive director of Early Childhood Education for the YMCA of Greater Long Beach, focusing on children from ages 18 months to 5 years at five locations throughout the city and neighboring communities.
“Every single thing we really need to know we learn in preschool,” she said. “Share, play fair, don’t hurt people, clean up your own mess, live a balanced life — drink some, draw some, paint some, sing and dance and play and work every day some, take a nap, wash your hands before you eat and stick together.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the Y’s early childhood educational programs were serving 500 children and their families. The Y closed for a short time, but has reopened with strict safety rules in place.
Sulsona said they are now serving about 276 children in person at their five locations and about 100 online.
“We can add a few more, but we are pretty maxed out right now,” she said. “We are looking at the possibility of adding some outdoor classes to serve more children.”
The Y partnered with the Long Beach Day Nursery and Young Horizons to get a grant from Best Start Central Long Beach for education kits parents could use with their children at home.
Sulsona also supervises the “Bring Me a Book” program, which improves literacy by having parents read to their children at home. Parents read to their children every day for 30 weeks with material supplied by the Y and the “Bring Me a Book” program. At the end of the 30 weeks, the children attend a graduation at a local school. Because of the coronavirus, this year’s graduation took place online in a Zoom meeting.
Sulsona strongly believes that learning should be a joy, not a job.
She said she learned that at an early age from her grandmother, Maria Hernandez, who raised Sulsona after her mother died when she was 3 and her father died when she was 11. Her grandmother, who had Puerto Rican roots, died in 2004.
Growing up with an extended family, Sulsona analyzed human development with relatives, wondering why some thrived while others didn’t.
“I figured out that education was the great equalizer, and, as a teacher, I could make the biggest difference in fixing some of the problems that existed in my community and in the world," she said.
Before going to New York to teach middle school, Sulsona taught social studies at her alma mater, Banning High School.
Sulsona said she wants to create a legacy that resembles her late grandmother’s, “one which reminds us of our resilience, ability to overcome obstacles and inspires within us a strength to help others and do what we can one person at a time to leave the world better than it was before we got here.”
It’s easy to see that Sulsona loves working with children and families. One day last week you could see her playing basketball with Kani Towns, a 3-year-old at the Y’s Play & Learn center at 2179 Pacific Ave.
Learning should be fun, Sulsona believes.
“At the same time, we all want to be safe, happy, loved, heard, cared for, valued, and we all want justice, fairness and equality,” she said.
Those are great lessons to be learned by anyone. Just ask any preschooler.