This month, we hosted our 22nd Annual Luncheon at the Westin River North, where we welcomed hundreds of supporters to discuss the life-changing impacts of the first five years of a child’s life. Through powerful conversations and presentations with experts in the field, parents, teachers and Start Early staff, we discussed the need for all children, regardless of their background, to have equitable access to the quality health care, early education and intervention services they need to thrive, from before birth continuing through early childhood.

If you were unable to join us, you can watch a recording of the full program below.

This year’s Luncheon theme Start Today. Change Tomorrow is a powerful reminder of the comprehensive and life-changing impacts of early learning and care on the young learners of today and their futures.

For more than four decades, Start Early has led efforts to close the opportunity gap with a laser focus on the earliest years. There is an enormous transformation that happens in the first 1,000 days of life setting the stage for a baby’s cognitive, social and emotional development.  A child’s brain is growing at an astonishing rate and changing in shape and size in response to the world around them. These early years are critical and lay the foundation to build resilience, agency and hope so all children can realize their full potential.

In our pursuit of sustainable change, Start Early champions equity and embraces innovation to address complex early childhood issues that many families face today – meaningful policy to improve access for children with disabilities, comprehensive supports for children and families who are unhoused and quality health care for parental and maternal mental health – to pave the way for a more equitable and just future.

We are grateful for the tremendous support and generosity of our donors and event sponsors who helped us raise $1.07 million. Every dollar raised helps our young families and sets the stage for them to thrive. You can still show your support by making a donation today.

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to our Luncheon Chair James Reynolds, Jr., a leader in Chicago’s business and philanthropic community who shares in our belief that investments in high-quality early education can strengthen families and break the cycle of poverty.

When we come together and invest in early childhood education, we can transform the lives of our future generation.

Our children—and our future—will thank you.

2024 Annual Luncheon Sponsors

A special thank you to our corporate and individual sponsors whose commitment to our mission is helping more children reach their full potential.



The Hasten Foundation
Helen Zell



BMO logo DRW logo

Nancy & Steve Crown | The Crown Family
Diana & Bruce Rauner



Joyce Foundation logo Oberhelman Foundation & Cullinan Properties, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor
Peoples Gas, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor Related Midwest, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor

Tom Gimbel
Cari & Michael J. Sacks
Diana & Michael Sands



Allstate Insurance Company
Noelle C. Brock, Brock Family Foundation
Kerri & Matthew Bruderman
Buffett Early Childhood Fund
Dave & Jane Casper
CME Group Foundation
Mary & Terry Dillon
Marilyn & Larry Fields
GCM Grosvenor
Cabray Haines & David Kiley
Harris Family Foundation
The Malkin Family
Charles & Brunetta Matthews
Northern Trust
Port Capital LLC
Robert R. McCormick Foundation
Jeanne Rogers & Perry Sainati

Catherine Siegel
Linda & Michael Simon
Steans Family Foundation
Sunshine Charitable Foundation
Laura Thonn & Scott Sallee
Wilson/Garling Foundation



Ellen Alberding & Kelly Welsh
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago
Susan & Stephen Baird
Jimmy & Eleni Bousis
Sarah Bradley & Paul Metzger
John & Jacolyn Bucksbaum Family Foundation
the Chicago Bulls
Erikson Institute
Mr. & Mrs. Rodney L. Goldstein
Rachel & Devin Gross
Maxwell Gunnill
J.P. Morgan Private Bank
Learning Resources
Ron Levin/Goldman Sachs
Elaine & Donald Levinson
Sharon Oberlander
Barbara & Dan O’Keefe
Plante Moran
Isabel & Charles Polsky
Rothkopf Family Charitable Foundation
Halee Sage & David Friedman
Shah Family Trust
Cheryl & Craig Simon
Sterling Bay
Ken & Kathy Tallering
Anne & John Tuohy
YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago

Start Early is committed to advancing systems in which all children and their families have access to an uninterrupted continuum of equitable, comprehensive and responsive services from before birth through age five. Systems building is intense and challenging work because early childhood services and funding streams are fragmented, under-resourced, and historically inequitable. Start Early Consulting supports public sector leaders and advocates to ensure that early childhood systems are high-quality and aligned, resourced to be sustainable, and designed to serve children and families from historically marginalized communities.

Blue Meridian Partners recently invested in Start Early’s ability to build a sustainable consulting practice, and to provide consulting services pro bono to promote equity and quality in state and community systems. In summer 2023, we launched the Impact Initiative and put out a call for applications from public sector leaders and advocates in need of support with systems-level challenges focused on two key policy areas: home visiting and children with disabilities and developmental delays. Start Early brings deep policy and program experience and expertise in these areas and they represent services and families which are often under-served and isolated from broader early childhood systems work.

Systems leaders from across the country submitted 40 applications for support, leading to consulting engagements in a diverse set of eight states across the country: California, Colorado, Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas. Our Consulting team of former advocates, government leaders, program leaders, teachers and home visitors bring diverse lived and professional experiences to the initial cohort of state and local leaders to solve pressing policy and advocacy challenges.

For example, Start Early Consulting is supporting the Kentucky Early Intervention Providers Association (KEIPA), a new advocacy organization with a mission of supporting and advocating for the families they serve and the providers who serve them. KEIPA and Start Early will be partnering to create a 2024 policy agenda focused on increasing funding for critical Early Intervention services for young children and to build KEIPA’s capacity as a statewide early childhood advocacy leader in Kentucky.

Blue Meridian’s place-based, outcomes-focused approach to catalytic investments will improve the lives of children and families in these eight states and strengthen Start Early’s capacity to support additional systems leaders in the future. Learn more about Start Early Consulting on our website and please share widely with state and community leaders who could benefit from partnership with us.

Blue Meridian Partners is a pioneering philanthropic model for finding and funding scalable solutions to problems that limit economic and social mobility for America’s young people and families in poverty.

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“One… two… three…” you say as you count your baby’s toys for them. Even though your baby can’t solve equations, let alone speak, they are building early math and language skills with each number they hear.

And you don’t need to stop at numbers — there are many early math concepts that you can introduce to your young child, simply through language, play and reading books.

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Here are some fun activity ideas to help introduce early math concepts to your child:

  • Discover geometry: Shapes are a big part of geometry. Labeling different shapes — from squares to circles to stars — will help your child start to associate the words with the shapes, setting the early foundation of geometry. With toddlers and preschoolers, look at two- and three-dimensional shapes, so they can see how each object looks and functions. Blocks in different shapes are a great tool to use for this.
  • Play with volume: If you cook in the kitchen, you are already using volume. For babies and toddlers, start by using words like teaspoon, tablespoon, cup, pint and quart while you are cooking to get them familiar with the terms. Preschoolers can help you measure out ingredients using measuring cups and spoons. You can play fun games that teach incremental volume: how many tablespoons does it take to fill a quarter cup? How many cups go into your quart measuring cup?
  • Use comparisons: Many math lessons will involve word problems and comparisons as early as kindergarten. The more familiarity that your child has with comparison terms, the easier it will be for them to understand the word problems. You can create opportunities for your child to learn to compare by using toys of different sizes and words like more, less, lighter, heavier, bigger and smaller.
  • See how tall they are: By the time they are preschoolers, most children become interested in how tall and how heavy they are. One idea to help talk about height is to chart their growth on a wall, showing how tall they are each year. For preschoolers, you can also begin to introduce units of measurement like inches and feet by helping your child use a ruler to measure how much they have grown.
  • Reading books: Reading is an excellent way of introducing math language and concepts to your child. Books are a natural entry point that make learning math fun in the early years. Engaging your child in the math in storybooks build on their interest, discoveries and questions. Here are some great children’s book recommendations that are full of wonderful math concepts:

Through simple language and play, young children will start to learn essential early math and STEM skills. And remember, especially for babies and toddlers, just hearing these words early and often helps plant the seed for your future mathematician.

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Through just this one simple act you are bonding with your child, inspiring a love of reading—and are helping them develop strong early language and literacy skills that will become the foundation for their future learning and success. In fact, studies show that reading aloud is a primary driver of young children’s early language development.

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To help you and your child get the most out of your storytime while celebrating National Library Week at home, here are 12 early literacy tips from our early learning experts at Start Early and our Educare Chicago school:

  1. Start early. Reading to babies is important for healthy brain development and lays the foundation for language and writing skills.
  2. Make reading a part of your daily routine. Establishing a routine helps ensure that reading is part of your daily schedule, such as at naptime and bedtime. It also creates times during the day that both of you can look forward to.
  3. Try board and cloth books for babies. By age 1, babies can grab books.  Board and cloth books are great options for babies who like to touch things and put everything in their mouths.
  4. Take turns with your toddler. By age 2, toddlers can hold a book and point at the pictures. Let your toddler turn the pages of a board book and respond to her when she points or reacts to the story.
  5. Ask your child questions. As you read to your child, make the experience interactive by asking him questions, such as “What do you think will happen next?” “What was your favorite part of the story? Why?”
  6. Reread your child’s favorite books. By age 3, children can complete sentences in familiar stories. Read her favorite books over and over to help her learn through repetition.
  7. Point out similar words. By age 4, children begin to recognize letters. You can point out words in a book that begin with the same letter to your preschooler to help him become familiar with the letter and begin to associate certain words with that letter.
  8. Count objects on the page. As you read to your child, count objects on the page together to help her also strengthen her early math skills.
  9. Have your preschooler tell you the story. By age 5, children can sit still for longer books and can create their own stories based on the pictures. Ask your preschooler to tell you the basic plot of the book or to make up stories based on what he sees on each page.
  10. Read with passion! Using inflection and maintaining the same highs and lows in your voice at the same point in a story helps your child begin to remember the words.
  11. Set an example. Let your child see you reading your books to help her develop her own love of reading.
  12. Just keep reading. Reading to your child helps him develop a habit of listening to stories and loving books. One the most important pieces of advice is to make sure you are reading to him early and often.

No matter how old your child is — from babies to toddlers to preschoolers — these tips will help you capitalize on this valuable time with your child, making reading a fun, educational and memorable experience for both of you.

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The earlier that we can start to help our children understand their emotions, the better the outcome in raising kind, empathetic children. Brain scientists, educators, economists and public health experts all agree that building a good foundation for healthy relationships begins at birth. The earlier that your child can adapt and develop key social-emotional skills—like attentiveness, persistence and impulse control—the sooner they can begin engaging in healthy social interactions with peers.

Young children aren’t necessarily born with the skills to engage in healthy relationships; they are born with the potential to develop them. With young children, it’s important that parents teach empathy by being the example. Show empathy daily to your children, family, and others in your community during your day. When empathy is shown by the parent, talk that through with your child by being attentive to their feelings. Use language like “I know that was hard for you, you seemed sad but you’re safe and loved.” This language will help children to be aware of their own emotions and feelings, in turn helping them be empathic to others.

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Tips for Parents:

  1. Explore your child’s emotions together and engage them in imaginative play to learn how to express those feelings so that they can better manage their emotions before starting preschool.
  2. Teach your child that it’s okay to have whatever feeling they are having: anger, frustration, embarrassment, fear, even rage, but that it is not acceptable for their actions to cross over and affect someone else negatively.
  3. Teach your child that it’s good to try to understand why someone else is having negative feelings. There may be a very good reason for their friend or acquaintance to be feeling angry or afraid.
  4. Teach your child that it’s never okay for them or anyone else to use their feelings as an excuse to verbally attack someone. And that when someone does this, it is time to get an adult into the situation.

You as a parent play an important role along with your child’s teachers in laying a strong foundation for social-emotional skills that will help your child to form healthy relationships. It is important for the adults in your child’s life to model positive behaviors and set clear rules.


Here are 2 activities that you can do at home with your little one to help teach them about empathy:

Conscious Discipline Kindness Tree

Make a Kindness Tree

The Kindness Tree is a symbolic way to record kind and helpful actions. Family members place leaves or notes on the tree to represent kind and helpful acts. Parents can notice these acts by saying, “You __(describe the action)__ so __(describe how it impacted others)__. That was helpful/kind!” For example, “Shubert helped Sophie get dressed so we would be on time for our library playdate. That was helpful!”

The Kindness Tree can also grow with families who have children of mixed ages. Initially, young children simply put a leaf on the tree to represent kind and helpful acts. As children grow and learn to write, the ritual evolves to include writing the kind acts down on leaves or sticky notes. Start your own Kindness Tree with this template.

Families with older children can simply use a Kindness Notebook to record kind acts and read them aloud daily or weekly.

Make a We Care Center

Two girls playing togetherThe We Care Center provides a way for family members to express caring and empathy for others. Fill your We Care Center with supplies like minor first aid items (Band-Aids, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, scented lotion), card-making supplies (preprinted cards, paper, crayons, sentence starters), and a tiny stuffed animal for cuddling.

When a friend or family member is ill, hurt, or having a hard time, your family can go to the We Care Basket to find a way to show that person they care. At first, parents might need to suggest how and when to use the We Care Center, but your children will quickly understand the intent. In this way, the We Care Center encourages the development of empathy by providing a means for children to offer caring and thoughtfulness to others every day.

This content was cross-promoted on our partner’s website, Big Heart World. Check out Big Heart World for additional social-emotional resources for parents and educators.

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As we reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the National Day of Racial Healing, we asked our early learning experts for advice on how talk to your little ones about racial healing, equity and justice.

As a parent, it can sometimes be difficult to talk to your children about serious issues like racism, but it is so very important. Sparking conversation with your little ones on this topic can help them to address bias and to be mindful as they navigate this big and sometimes scary world we live in.

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Children's Books on Racial Healing

One of the best ways to help your child learn is through reading. By choosing books that affirm the identities and backgrounds of all children you and your child can have an open dialogue about recognizing and celebrating differences. Here are book recommendations from our early learning experts to read aloud with your little one to learn about racial healing:

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Advances in brain research show that children are born learning and that their first three years of life in particular are important indicators for the success they can have later in school and in life. Early experiences that are language-rich and nurturing promote healthy brain development. So finding a quality early learning setting is essential for parents who work and seek child care.

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Checklist To Prepare for a New Child Care Setting

Once you’ve found a quality setting—from a center-based program to home child care to a relative’s house—here’s some advice from our expert Teresa Bennett a family support specialist at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, on how you can prepare your child for their first day of daycare:

  • Visit the Child Care Center
    To help your child get to know the new environment, visit the child care center with your child before the first day. You and your child can meet the caregiver. Take photos of the route to the center, the center entrance and the room where your child will spend the day. You can assemble the photos as a book, which you can use to talk to your child at home about what their day will be like and where they will go.
  • Talk to Your Child
    To help prepare your infant or toddler to go to out-of-home care, explain using language and concepts they will understand about where they’ll be going and what they’ll be doing. Talk about how they will meet new children and participate in fun activities. Always mention that you’ll be back at the end of the day to take them home.
  • Build a Relationship With the Caregiver
    Your young child may not be able to talk, but they can observe your actions. They’ll form their opinion of the caregiver based on your reactions. Make time each day to talk to the caregiver and begin building a strong relationship. Caregivers at quality early learning programs see parents as partners and will want to develop a strong relationship with you, your child’s first and most important teacher.
  • Share Information About Your Child
    Talk to the caregiver about your child’s cues, likes, dislikes and temperament. How do they like to be fed, soothed and put to sleep? Your tips will help the caregiver know how to best care for your child without having to guess which methods to try. You can also explain what developmental skills you’d like your child to learn. Ask for daily updates about your child’s progress from the caregiver.
  • Create a Morning Routine
    Routines help children feel in control of their surroundings, which eases anxiety. Create a morning routine so your infant or toddler knows what to expect before going to the child care center. Find out if the center provides breakfast so you know whether or not your child needs to eat at home.
  • Develop a Goodbye Ritual
    Create a goodbye ritual so that your infant or toddler starts to feel comfortable with their caregiver when you leave. Your ritual could be a hug, a high five or interacting together with a toy before you leave. Whatever activity you choose, make sure you take time to talk to your child about what’s happening and don’t rush the process. Once your child becomes used to the goodbye ritual, they’ll be better able to regulate their emotions so that they can calm themself more easily when you go. Learn more about separation anxiety.
  • Bring a Transitional Object
    Your child may feel more at ease in a new environment with an object that reminds them of home. This could be a photo of your family that’s laminated or a stuffed animal that your child enjoys. The child can hold the object during the day as a reminder that this new environment is temporary and that you will come back to take them home.
  • Ask What You Can Do at Home
    To extend your child’s learning, ask the caregiver what school readiness skills the children will be working on during the day and what related activities you can do at home. The reverse is also true: share information about what activities you are doing at home that your child is interested in and ask if the teacher can do something similar in class.
  • Complete Any Medical Requirements
    Find out from the school or center what doctor or dentist appointments must be completed or scheduled before the first day.
  • Bring a Change of Clothes
    It’s a good idea to bring a change of clothes for your infant or toddler in case they encounter any water, finger paint, etc. Also, ask the center if you need to bring diapers or formula for your child.
  • Share Your Contact Information
    Let the caregiver know if it’s best to reach you by phone or email and share that contact information.

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You and your child may feel excited—or apprehensive—about the first day of preschool. This is a big transition for children, especially those going to school for the first time. Children will learn many social and emotional and academic skills in preschool that will help them throughout their school careers, so it’s important to help children feel comfortable in the classroom.

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Checklist To Navigate the Transition to Preschool

To help your child get the most out of the preschool experience, we asked a Start Early expert for some advice for parents handling this transition. Annaliese Newmeyer a teacher at Educare Chicago, a program of Start Early, shared her tips to help you and your child prepare for preschool.

Before the first day:

  • Drive or walk by your child’s new school. Seeing their school ahead of time will help familiarize them with their new space. You can show them where things are like the main door and the playlot. This will help your child feel more comfortable with the space and how things will look on their first day.
  • Meet with the teacher. Meeting your child’s teacher ahead of their first day is very helpful for both you and your little learner. At this meeting, you can help your child learn their new teacher’s name and give your child a chance to become comfortable with them. You can also take this time to ask the teacher what your child will be learning and what skills they expect children to have on day one. Then, you can set some realistic and developmentally-appropriate goals for your child. For example, do you work on your child’s reading? Together you can set goals that can help your child develop early literacy skills, like being able to recognize their name and the letters in their name.
  • Celebrate this milestone. This can be the beginning of a tradition to say goodbye to Summer and hello to the school year! Maybe you and your child go get an ice cream sundae or go to a baseball game or stay up late and watch movies and eat snacks together.

On the first day:

  • Be prepared. Bring a bookbag with a change of clothes, a favorite blanket or stuffed animal for nap time, and even a picture of your family. Having something that reminds your child of home with help them feel more at ease in their new environment.
  • Make sure your child eats a good breakfast and gets some rest. Your child’s school might give them breakfast, but it might be later, and you don’t want them to be too hungry!
  • Expect the first day to be easy but it might get hard the second day or the second week when reality sets in that they must return to school every single weekday.
  • Explain to your child that this will be a hard transition for you too! You will miss them, and they will have to meet new people and have new experiences but each day will get easier.
  • Make sure you say goodbye, do not sneak away. Have the same goodbye every day; we call this a goodbye ritual. It can be a hug, a special handshake or a dance! This ritual will help your child learn what to expect when you come to class and will help ease their anxiety when you leave.


  • Ask questions! Ask your child’s teacher how each day is going and what you can do to help make it better. And be sure to ask your child how their day was. At first, they might just say nothing, but as you ask them every day, their answers will become more and more descriptive.
  • Volunteer in the classroom if you can. Get to know the other kids and parents. This is your new community, your new village and you are there to support each other!

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School clothes? ✔ New backpack? ✔ School supplies? ✔ Explaining to your child what the transition to school will be like… no? Starting preschool and kindergarten can be an exciting yet stressful time for children. New school, new teachers, new classmates—everything is different. It’s important to give your child a frame of reference to help ease the transition into preschool and kindergarten. Reading books with your child about going to school is a great way to give them an idea of what to expect on that first day.

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Making the transition into preschool and kindergarten is a big step and a big change in a young child’s life. Explaining what it might be like is critical in helping them feel secure. Reading books on the subject at storytime gives parents the opportunity to enhance their child’s understanding by providing illustrated examples of what their new school will be like and helping make learning fun.

Back-to-School Books for Preschoolers & Kindergarteners

Here’s a list of books recommended by the experienced staff and teachers of Educare Chicago. From books on how children around the world get to school, to first-day jitters, to classics that have stood the test of time, you are bound to find one, or more, that will be a wonderful tool to explain this milestone to your child. So get out there and start reading!

  1. Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney
    It’s Llama Llama’s first day of preschool! And Llama Llama’s mama makes sure he’s ready. They meet the teachers. See the other children. Look at all the books and games. But then it’s time for Mama to leave. And suddenly Llama Llama isn’t so excited anymore.
  2. My Preschool by Anne Rockwell
    Join a happy little boy during a day at preschool, from cheerful hellos in circle time, to painting colorful pictures and playing at the water table before snack time. The best part of saying goodbye at the end of the day is that the little boy knows he will come back tomorrow.
  3. Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate
    It’s the first day of kindergarten and Miss Bindergarten is hard at work getting the classroom ready for her 26 new students. Miss Bindergarten puts the finishing touches on the room just in time, and the students arrive. Now the fun can begin!
  4. Kindergarten Kids by Ellen Senisi
    This cheerful photo essay shows 21 kids in a kindergarten class on a typical day. Girls and boys play with everything from computers to blocks; they learn the alphabet and how to follow rules; they dress up, say the pledge of allegiance, listen to stories, and make music and art together. Sometimes they even have a bad day.
  5. Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing
    Join the kids as they prepare for kindergarten, packing school supplies, posing for pictures, and the hardest part of all—saying goodbye to mom and dad. But maybe it won’t be so hard once they discover just how much fun kindergarten really is.
  6. Kindergarten ABC by Jacqueline Rogers
    Each and every day celebrates a letter of the alphabet with a fun-filled classroom scene.
  7. Who Will Go to School Today? by Karl Ruhmann
    Sam decides to send his toy monkey Timbo to kindergarten in his place, but after telling Timbo about his school friends and what his day is really like, he realizes he wants to go himself.
  8. Froggy Goes to School by Jonathan London
    Froggy’s mother knows that everyone is nervous on the first day of school. Froggy’s exuberant antics, complete with sound effects, will delight his many fans and reassure them that school can be fun.
  9. Otto Goes to School by Todd Par
    Otto goes to school for the first time, where he makes new friends and learns how to wag his tail without knocking things over.
  10. This is the Way We Go to School: A Book about Children Around the World by Edith Baer
    With fun-filled rhymes and colorful illustrations, children will discover just how much fun getting to school can be.
  11. Going to School by Sally Hewitt
    Children learn what it is like to go to school in other countries.
  12. Seven Little Mice Go to School by Haruo Yamashita
    It’s time for seven little mice to start school! And it’s up to Mother Mouse to get them there.
  13. Chicken Chickens Go to School by Valeri Gorbachev
    It’s the first day of school for the little chickens and they are a little scared. How a wise teacher helps the chickens overcome their fears and win some wonderful new friends is a heartwarming story that will reassure youngsters experiencing their own first-day jitters.

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