In 1907, a passionate woman named Lizzie Swisher moved to Oklahoma City to support children experiencing homelessness. She went door-to-door in her historic neighborhood to raise money to build them a home. That home became the Sunbeam Home and eventually Sunbeam Family Services, Oklahoma's oldest social service agency, serving children and their families throughout central Oklahoma.
Part early education center, part foster care agency and part mental health services, Sunbeam strives to strengthen the social service ecosystem in their community. With a holistic approach, the organization helps over 4,000 central Oklahoma children and families learn, grow and thrive each year through early childcare and education, with specialized wraparound support for entire family systems.
"Sunbeam doesn't just work with the child—they work with the entire family unit, whatever form it takes," said Evan Walter, BOK Financial® institutional wealth relationship manager. "The nonprofit provides families with opportunities to improve their situation, and, in my opinion, they offer first-class services to a segment of the population that otherwise wouldn't have access."
As an Early Head Start provider in Oklahoma City, Sunbeam is a leader in early childhood education. Sunbeam’s 17 early education centers, partner sites and Home Visitation Program raise the quality of early care and education in the community while preparing babies and toddlers from birth to age four to enter kindergarten with the skills necessary to be ready for school. Sunbeam’s high-quality early education centers, which were voted Metro Family Magazine's Favorite Child Care Center, feature low student-to-teacher ratios, free healthy snacks and meals and a Montessori-like approach to learning.
Walter, who has volunteered with Sunbeam since 2019 and is chairman-elect of the board, particularly loves the way the classrooms feel. "Seeing those childcare centers, they are as good or better than the private early childhood development centers I've seen," said Walter. "You walk in the doors and feel like, wow, this is a first-class operation. That's important for our families and their kids. It feels respectful and empowering to go to school there."
Collective healing and the transformative role of mental health care
After World War II, Sunbeam expanded into adult mental health services, providing the only community-based mental health services in Oklahoma at that time. Today, Sunbeam provides affordable mental health services on a sliding scale for individuals, families and children. Highly skilled and caring staff are trained in evidence-based practices and are passionate about helping people improve their mental, physical, and emotional wellness. Staff also provide education and resource connection.
Community mental health services are critical to amplifying their early childhood education work, according to Sunbeam’s website. For infants, toddlers and young children, life-long health and well-being are affected when they're exposed to neglect, toxic stress, trauma or domestic violence. Adverse childhood experiences wire a child's brain to live in a state of constant stress, influencing a child’s brain development, impacting their social-emotional skills and possibly delaying cognitive skills. Not only can this impact childhood, it can have a deep impact on mental and physical health outcomes as an adult, the formation of healthy adult relationships, and overall development.
Sunbeam invests in community mental health because they know that there is still hope after early childhood trauma. Families and caregivers can positively impact a child's life by taking care of their own mental health—another service Sunbeam provides.
"There are pretty intense stories that you hear about adults in our community who are suffering from things like depression and anxiety," recalled Walter. “They feel like sometimes there's no other option for them. I've heard several beneficiaries of our mental health services say, 'Sunbeam has saved my life.'"
The resilience and joy of families in every shape and size
Prioritizing inclusivity, Sunbeam understands that families take all shapes and forms, and offers several customized services. With their no-one-size-fits-all-approach, the organization empowers grandparents raising grandchildren through individualized support and education, support groups, connection to resources, mental health services and connection with Sunbeam's early care and education services. Sunbeam also organizes monthly activities to encourage father figures and male family members to be actively involved in their young child's life, learning and care.
And true to Lizzie Swisher's original vision, Sunbeam is also a traditional foster care agency providing temporary care and supportive services in a home environment for children. Foster families have access to a variety of support services including trauma-certified therapists, priority placement in Sunbeam's early education centers, 24/7 on-call support and specialized training. This program welcomes foster parent applications from individuals and families regardless of marital status, sexuality, gender identity, gender expression, religion or race.
Building brighter futures with all children and families is Sunbeam's mission, and Walter sees the ripple effect. "If we have successful children, they become successful adults," he said. "As successful adults, they become contributing members to our community, ultimately making for a stronger community overall. Sunbeam is certainly not the answer for everything, but the things that we do, we do very, very well."