Skip to main content

Millcreek Journal

Unique preschool focusing on mental health opens in Millcreek

Apr 30, 2022 11:47AM ● By Deb Hafner

By Deb Hafner | [email protected]

When Maria Soter went in for a routine sonogram in 2006, she wasn’t prepared for tragic news. Soter and her husband, Sam, learned that their unborn baby had a disorder called agenesis of the corpus callosum, and was missing the part of the brain that connects the left and right halves. Sammy Soter was born on April 11, 2006 and lived for 34 days.

“His 34 days on earth reshaped my life in ways that I could not imagine and only now, 15 years later, have I begun to understand,” reflects Soter, seated in a sunlit classroom at The Sammy Center, a preschool she founded to help children overcome trauma. “We just put the furniture together last night,” she said, looking around the room filled with books and toys.

When Sammy passed away, the Soters’ then four-year-old daughter, Theadora, had a hard time expressing the grief she felt from the death of her highly-anticipated baby brother. Thea began to struggle with anxiety and other emotional issues, and preschool became a place where Soter found herself more and more regularly, sitting alongside Thea and comforting her. As she got older, Thea’s early experience with death and grief manifested itself in other detrimental ways.

According to child development experts, children who experience adversity at a young age can carry it with them from early childhood into elementary, adolescent and adult experiences. Often a social and emotional need that is left unaddressed has predictable results: adverse behaviors, impeded learning, and unsatisfying school experiences. 

In short, as reported by the National Institutes of Health, mental and emotional health and well-being are just as important to a child’s life and development as physical growth, physiological changes and education. 

Yet, while educators are equipped with ways to evaluate and deliver services to children who need special education assistance, and mostly have resources at their disposal for disadvantaged children, there is a gap in the mental health realm of support.

Soter is stepping in to fill this gap in the three-to-five-year-old preschool curriculum with The Sammy Center. “We believe that children who have unique emotional needs, especially those brought on by grief, trauma or loss, will benefit from a learning program that fosters social and emotional well-being,” said Soter, who is the CEO as well as the founder. “If addressed early enough through nurturing relationships and intervention, a good foundation and the tools, we will pave the way for positive future outcomes.” 

If it is predictable that early negative experiences can have adverse results on a person’s life, Soter believes it is, therefore, preventable.

Mark Peterson with the Utah State Board of Education says, “With the variety of traumas that are being faced by preschoolers—family deaths, the pandemic, poverty, refugee status, etc.—it’s good for families to have options to place their children in trauma-informed preschools. Current research has shown that creating positive childhood experiences in school can mitigate risk factors for trauma and mental health for students of all ages. Creating those positive experiences for preschool-aged children likely has a greater impact for the student throughout their lifetime. Early childhood education sets up children for success later in school and in life.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) sites mental health as one of the most neglected areas of health globally, and the COVID pandemic has turned a spotlight on it. Soter remarks that “people don’t realize some of our students don’t remember a life without masks or constant hand sanitizing.” 

Early experiences and anxiety from the global pandemic have added to the 45% of children who have suffered a trauma before age four, and data from the American Psychological Association suggest that there is an early childhood mental health crisis. Across the country educators and parents have differing opinions about how to address mental health, and if it should be included in curriculum at all. Nevertheless, studies show that the earlier an intervention, the better the outcome for the child.

“We believe that a child who has experienced grief, trauma or loss has unique needs that should be met,” Soter said. “Creating a foundation for social emotional well-being is our mission.” Soter and her team will be using the unique noni™ Educational Solutions, an online and app-based program that supports trauma-informed instruction.

Kerianne Dyer, a licensed therapist not associated with The Sammy Center, said a trauma-informed school “would be a huge benefit for families in need. It is a unique take on helping little kids who would otherwise not have support and services in the classroom.”

Soter is a certified crisis worker with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah and taught in a Head Start program for many years. One of her teachers, Tracy Halverson, who also hails from a Head Start background, recounts an anecdote about a preschool girl she encountered in her years as a teacher. The four-year-old child’s father came to her room one night, kissed her, said goodbye, and was never heard from again. “People sometimes don’t know what a traumatic event is,” Halverson said. “For that little girl, she was traumatized, she was afraid, she developed abandonment issues.”

The Sammy Center staff and teachers are trauma-trained and evaluate students through what one study describes as a “trauma lens,” a distinct, informed perspective that allows them to connect to students and identify emotional needs.

“Adverse situations permeate all socioeconomic backgrounds,” Soter said, “and The Sammy Center is a place of equity and diversity which knows no boundaries.”

They will be offering a sliding scale tuition and taking advantage of recent state grants and funding, such as the new $12 million Expanded Student Access Grant from the Utah School Readiness Board—the first time funding has been made available for preschool. Gov. Spencer Cox has been driving mental health awareness and has introduced several programs for funding in the state.

Soter said from watching her daughter struggle all those years ago, “trauma affects us all, and as adults we may have gained experience, knowledge, and the ability to communicate and process our grief.  However, for children, processing trauma is different.”

“Sammy would have been 16 this month,” Soter said. In 2008, Maria and Sam welcomed daughter, Aurelia, to their family. Sammy’s family are all in a good place, having gained a distinct perspective into what it means to experience grief and devastation, no matter how long ago, and find ways to communicate, heal and use collective wisdom to help others.

“Together, we as parents, adults, and educators can nurture, teach, and advocate for every child who has experienced trauma at a young age,” Soter said. “It is with the strong memory of Sammy, a love for all children, and the joy in knowing that there is more we can do together to help that we are opening The Sammy Center.”

The Sammy Center, 1515 E. 3300 South, will celebrate opening for enrollment with a ribbon cutting on Sat., May 7 at 10 a.m. For more information visit