“It’s about long-term momentum.”

It takes a lot to give young children the best possible start in life. It takes cohesive, resilient families who are prepared to address children’s earliest developmental needs. It takes quality early childhood services and supports to help empower parents as confident educators and caregivers. It takes business leaders, community organizations and public officials who can build the networks of resources and supports that create opportunity for everyone, especially our youngest Nebraskans.

And it takes citizen-advocates who are skilled at bringing these elements together to drive sustainable early childhood policy change throughout the state.

Earlier this month, a group of 25 civic leaders from across Nebraska gathered in Broken Bow to begin a six-month journey through the principles and strategies of building an early childhood policy movement in their communities and state. These champions are members of the latest cohort of the Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leadership Academy (PLA), the state’s premier non-partisan leadership development initiative to improve the lives of Nebraskans—especially our youngest—through effective grassroots advocacy.


Launched to grow statewide advocacy
The PLA is a flagship project of First Five Nebraska (FFN), which launched the initiative in 2018 to grow a statewide network of skilled and well-informed advocates for early childhood issues. Now in its fourth cohort, the PLA is coordinated by FFN’s Jodi-Renee Girón, whose extensive experience in advocacy not only targets specific policy issues but also focuses on building full-community involvement for long-term progress.

“We don’t have any lack of urgent early childhood challenges that need solutions—attracting and retaining child care providers, fixing the fingerprinting process, growing program capacity,” said Girón at the introductory workshop in Broken Bow. “It’s important to get people on board with specific pieces of legislation that can address those issues. But our work as advocates is bigger than that—it’s also about cultivating local assets that snowball into an ongoing policy movement for young children.”

Among the most important of those assets are strong, intra-community relationships that connect citizens, civic leaders and public officials. This is reflected in the diverse makeup of the 2022-23 PLA class, which includes early childhood professionals, K-12 administrators, representatives of higher education, business and economic developers, community organization leaders—and even a Fulbright scholar specializing in child health disparities.

This year’s PLA attracted the largest number of applicants since the program was created. FFN Director Jason Prokop led the orientation for the incoming participants. “We’re enormously proud of the scope of experience and expertise represented in this year’s academy,” he said.

Capstone advocacy projects
Upcoming meetings of the PLA will focus on understanding community data and early childhood systems, mapping and coordinating local assets, navigating local government and engaging with the Nebraska Legislature. Each member of the PLA will pursue their own capstone advocacy project that will enable them to use the skills and information they acquire throughout the program to engage with state senators on early childhood issues during the 2023 session.

“This is group of people who bring a lot of insight from all walks of life with a common goal in mind,” said PLA member Chad Bryant, director of Christ Lutheran Childcare in Norfolk. “Today’s session gave us some very clear information on how we can start planning to get people engaged. That’s going to be very valuable in the long term.”

The PLA will re-convene November 16 in Hastings for a deep dive on using local data as a foundation for effective early childhood advocacy.

2022-23 PLA Members

  • Raúl Arcos Hawkins | Business Development Specialist, Center for Rural Affairs (Grand Island)
  • Amy Bennet | Executive Director, Grand Island YWCA
  • Taylor Brase | Director, Early Childhood Education Program at Central Community College (Grand Island)
  • Chad Bryant | Director, Christ Lutheran Childcare (Norfolk)
  • Crystal Dunekacke | City Administrator/Economic Developer, City of Auburn
  • Sarah Ehlers | Director of Talent and Workforce Development, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce
  • Genna Faulkner | Early Childhood Community Coordinator, Fremont Family Coalition (North Bend)
  • Chelsea Feusner | Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Kearney
  • Scott Foster | Acting Director, Dawson Area Development (Gothenburg)
  • Myra Katherine Hale | Owner, Pearl Academy and Pearl Baby (Fremont)
  • Chelsie Herian | Executive Director, Box Butte Development Corporation (Alliance)
  • Tiffany Karre | Program Coordinator, Stick Creek Kids (Wood River)
  • Megan Kvols | Executive Director, Nebraska Head Start Association (Lincoln)
  • Grace Mabiala | Physician and Fulbright Scholar/MPH Student, University of Nebraska Omaha
  • Susan Norris | Executive Director, Pierce County Economic Development (Plainview)
  • Maricela Novoa | Bilingual Specialist, Early Learning Connection Central Region (Lexington)
  • Robert Patterson | CEO, Kids Can Community (Bellevue)
  • Emily Perry | Development Coordinator, York County Development Corporation (Fairmont)
  • Brandy Price | Owner, ABC, 123 Home Childcare/Preschool (Pierce)
  • Shawna Rischling | Early Childhood Special Education Coordinator, Alliance Public Schools Sixpence
  • Tanya Santos | Principal, Holy Name Catholic School (Omaha)
  • Kari Schmitz | Legal Counsel, Hudl (Roca)
  • Terra Stennis-Harper | Early Childhood Community Coordinator, Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative (Omaha)
  • Callie Wilhite | Director, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Children’s Center
  • Faylyn Yarger | Director, Omaha Educare at Kennedy


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