Monthly Archives: August 2019
When we consider the children in our communities, our thoughts are often drawn to their futures. What will they learn? Where will they go? Who will they be? Our children’s future depends on our actions today. They require careful guidance and early education as they develop and discover the world for the first time.
Helping guide Florida’s children on this critical path through early education, is our February Child Advocate Star of the Month, Karen Willis, who’s commitment to early childhood development continues to impact the futures of youth across Orange County every day. In an interview with Karen, we had the privilege of discussing her role as Chief Executive Officer for the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County (ELC), how she got involved in child advocacy, and a few of the key issues affecting the early development of Orlando’s youth.
Before beginning her career as a child advocate with the Early Learning Coalition, Willis collaborated with a variety of organizations to impact local change. Among her many accomplishments, Willis worked with Title 20 funding, a government subsidy which helps low income parents put their children in early child care. Her experiences with Title 20 legislation and the families it affected influenced Willis to become more involved in civic change, leading this young advocate to accept a position with the Arc, a national organization whose mission is to help individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. After working with the Arc, and coming to understand the fundamental difficulties one faces when seeking to make change in politics, Willis decided to return to higher education and complete her Master’s degree.
Upon finishing her Master’s, Willis was selected by the Indiana Governor’s Office as one of the first Governor Fellows, where she was able develop an intimate understanding of the relationship between state and national politics. During this Fellowship, Willis began to collaborate with the State Job Training Agency, where she assisted young adults from low income backgrounds begin career readiness, receive job training, and accept educational opportunities that could act as turning points in the lives of these individuals.
“So, what brought you to work with younger children, when so much of your early career was focused on helping adults?” We asked.
In 1999, Willis answered, her attention was caught by the Florida Legislature passing what is known as the “School Readiness Act”, a government measure which acknowledges the importance of early education preparedness as a prerequisite to children beginning a successful educational career. The School Readiness Act presented an opportunity for Willis to begin work on the flipside of economic development from her work at the Job Training Agency, creating a positive effect from the beginning of a child’s educational experience, rather than intervening after they’ve left the classroom. Upon accepting employment at the Early Learning Coalition (at the time, called the School Readiness Coalition), Willis’ dedication towards early childhood development began to realize impactful change within Orange County.
Now, eighteen years later, the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County impacts 30,000 kids a year, helping parents be their child’s first and best teacher while preparing them for the challenges of school. Among the services of the ELC, is a childcare subsidy program which helps low-income parents place their child in early childcare, while also granting children four years of age access to Orange County VPK programs. The Learning Coalition also provides a program to the parents of newborns that highlights the importance of talking to children, how parents can help children prepare for school, and the dietary differences between the nutritional needs of an infant and an adult. In this program, parents work with coordinators to learn about what specific nutritional needs children have, how to meet these dietary needs, and are also given instruction on how they can help their child meet developmental milestones at home. Further addressing the dietary needs of infants and toddlers, Willis negotiated a partnership between the Coalition and Orlando’s Second Harvest Food Bank, in order to deliver balanced meals to hungry children VPK aged and younger.
Karen Willis and members of the MVP program celebrate opening 25 reading corners throughout Central Florida
Another success of the Coalition, thanks to Willis, is a partnership with the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation for the Coalitions Infant/Toddler Childhood Development Associate (CDA) Program. Through this program, infant/toddler teachers are able to receive the resources, hands on experience, and education associated with a career in early childhood development. Too often, early childcare is considered a daycare program, limiting the learning and developmental opportunities of infants and toddlers with their teachers during the time they’re in care. Contrastingly, the Coalition’s CDA Program has identified that teacher-child interaction at this age is critical to developmental, and later, even educational success.
“The thing that’s most important…that makes a fundamental difference in outcomes for kids…is the teacher,” Willis stated. Since the program began, over 100 infant and toddler teachers have graduated with their CDA and continued on to classrooms across Orange County.
Looking to the future of early childhood development, Willis admits there is a dire need for a larger investment in VPK and early child care. While government agencies study the impact of education and of a school’s environment on a child after they’ve started kindergarten, there are no analyses on the effect of VPK and early child care programs on child development, resulting in early childcare to remain grossly underfunded and unregulated. If we make a greater commitment to our children, as early as their first stages of development, than we have a real change at creating the future effect.
If you’re a parent interested in the services of the Early Learning Coalition, or interested in finding out how you can help make a difference with this wonderful organization, you can find their website here: Early Learning Coalition of Orange County