When the chaos of COVID-19 upended life in 2020, Carol Austin wasn’t sure what would happen to her organization’s mission for children. Austin is executive director of First Up, a non-profit which helps day care centers attain top ranking in the state. “We provide training primarily for teachers and directors in child care, to increase the quality of programs and increase the quality of teacher training,” Austin says.
First Up had been operating for nearly 50 years. In 2019 and 2020, it served 50,000 children and provided training to 6,000 early childhood education practitioners. “What we know about brain development is that 90 percent of the architecture of the brain is laid down by the time you’re five years old,” says Austin. “It’s critical that we leverage that optimal first five all the way through pre-K. They’re critical years.”
Austin worried that the pandemic would force the organization to let go of staff, terminate programs, disrupt the critical mission to provide a stimulating, nurturing and loving environment for children, many of whom come from families who are financially disadvantaged.
United Way didn’t let that happen. First Up is a long-time grantee [Community Partner] of United Way, which provided critical support during COVID. “Without the support from United Way, we wouldn’t have been able to survive and make it to the next level – to keep staff engaged and employed,” Austin said.
“United Way helped us play a critical role in providing programs that were needed so desperately as people were dealing with their own trauma.”
While most grants are specified for a particular program, United Way provided general operating funds to First Up, which gave the organization flexibility in spending. “From an organizational perspective, to have general operating support makes a world of difference,” Austin says.
First Up also partnered with United Way to begin Flourishing Together, an initiative to provide professionals and families with education and training on how trauma can negatively impact young children’s behavior and health. All of First Up staff began the 18-month process of becoming trauma-certified, learning basic knowledge about trauma, adversity and stress and how to utilize trauma-informed values, knowledge, practice and skills in their work.
Dr. Marilyn Miles, founder of Greater Hope Ministries in Southwest Philadelphia, attributes her day care program’s top state ranking – STAR 4 – in part to guidance from First Up, particularly during the long months of the pandemic. The agency helped Dr. Miles review safety and sanitary procedures and upgrade them to provide stringent protocols. (STAR stands for Standards, Training/Professional Development, Assistance, Resources and Supports).
Dr. Miles is also grateful for the training that, for instance, encouraged teachers to ask children open-ended questions. Dr. Miles recalls one such lesson she overheard about caterpillars becoming butterflies. How and why does a caterpillar shed its shell? the teacher asked. What’s next? Where is its mommy? Did the mommy help? “Open-ended questions inspire children to think and to answer creatively,” Dr. Miles says, adding, “First Up was a blessing to me.”
Talona Coleman, who operates Heaven Sent Childcare in Germantown, is also grateful to First Up for all she’s learned. “They give you a lot of support in developing your program so it can move to a greater level,” she says. “I learned so much about children and the way their minds are, the way their minds grow. First Up has done an excellent job.”
A child who’s feeling distressed at Coleman’s day care center, for instance, knows there’s a sanctuary where he or she can seek refuge: a cozy cubby filled with colorful pillows and comforting objects that Coleman calls a “calming area.” “There are shimmery, glittery things, sensory squishy balls, bubbles,” and other things to identify and soothe upsetting feelings, Coleman says. It’s so successful that sometimes, she notes wryly, the children announce they’re upset just for a chance to go there.
First Up is continuing its mission to help people like Coleman and Dr. Miles provide top quality day care environment for children. Thanks to United Way, Austin says, “We got another year. We can breathe.”
Every year, United Way partners with hundreds of nonprofits throughout Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, helping them deliver invaluable services to people most in need. For more information on our impact and ways to support, visit here.
Follow along with our year-long #StrongerTogetherSeries as we feature insights and personal stories of the very people and bodies of work that have made us 100-years strong.