Congratulations to our 2023-24 PLA graduates

PLA members, class 2023-24

It’s the milestones that matter

The saying is, it’s not how you start, but how you finish that counts.

I respectfully disagree.

In real life, we encounter far more milestones than finish lines. What really counts is whether you have the drive and momentum to pass that milestone—then keep moving.

Last week, the fifth class of the Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leadership Academy (PLA) passed its first major milestone by completing its 2023-24 program at a day-long meeting in Grand Island. It’s been six months of focused effort for the 22 professionals from across the state who first came together last October in Ogallala to begin mastering the principles and practice of effective early childhood advocacy.

Together, we examined how conversations rooted in individual communities become the motor for driving policy change at all levels of government—from the meeting rooms of village councils to the floor of the Nebraska Legislature and beyond. We wrestled with complex administrative challenges facing the early childhood professionals who work hard to meet the needs of our kids, families and communities. We explored the rhythm and flow of the policymaking process and how best to influence it. We outlined effective methods for gathering, evaluating and communicating the information that guides good decision making. We mapped techniques for building relationships with neighbors, allies and champions to meet ongoing policy goals.

We examined what it means to be coordinated, strategic and credible policy advocates. We learned how to get things done.

Now, it’s time to keep moving.

PLA members Jackie Steffen and Jessica Lueth discuss LB997 with Senator DeKay in the Capitol rotunda.

An accomplished group of advocates

Members of the 2023-24 PLA were among the most talented and accomplished individuals to have passed through this program since it began in 2019. These professionals represented early childhood, K-12 and higher education, public health, economic and community development, municipal administration and more. They pursued their program of study at a time when public officials and decision makers are addressing a nearly unprecedented number of issues related to the care, education and healthy development of our youngest kids.

PLA graduate Dezarae Brandt, program manager for Healthy Families America in Gering, met with Senators Erdman and Hardin to discuss the importance of LB1124, which would make evidence-based home visiting services available to more Nebraska families with young children. Samantha Redfern, economic development specialist for West Central Nebraska Development District, is exploring strategies to further increase usage of LB840 Local Option Municipal Economic Development funds to strengthen child care infrastructure in communities statewide. Eric Garcia-Mendez, director of community connections for the Heartland United Way, is helping to coordinate a powerful coalition in Hall County to identify, address and communicate information about early childhood challenges to local representatives.

The common denominator in their work—and that of their fellow classmates—is a focus on building sustained momentum at the local level. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in more than 20 years of experience in grassroots advocacy, it’s that meaningful policy change is never a one-and-done proposition. It’s not a sprint or even a marathon. It’s an ongoing journey in which our friends, neighbors and community leaders need to stay connected to the policymaking process so the machinery of government is working for us and with us, not despite us.

All of us at First Five Nebraska are proud to see our 2024 graduates join a growing network of nearly 150 PLA alumni who are actively building that momentum throughout the state. I’m proud to have been on this journey with them. I’m looking forward to the upcoming 2024-25 class of the PLA and the work we’ll do together to give our youngest kids the best possible start in life.

Bring on that next milestone.

2023-24 Graduating Class

2024 PLA Graduates (Left to right): Ashley Wolfe, Kathleen Knudsen, Carlee Carter, Madonna Mogul, Amanda Woolley, Dezarae Brandt, Megan Schmidt, Hailey Crumley, Amanda Nielsen, Jill Austin, Leslie Baker, Tyler Sherman, Andrea Thomas, Jessica Lueth, Lauren Stoklasa, Kelly Vosler, Samantha Redfern, Erin Branch, Jackie Steffen, Eric Garcia-Mendez, Thelma Sims

  • Jill Austin | Executive Director, Valentine Children & Families Coalition (Valentine)
  • Leslie Baker | Owner/Director, Fits & Giggles, Circle of Security Facilitator (Norfolk)
  • Erin Branch | Owner/Operator, Branch Ranch Childcare (Lincoln)
  • Dezarae Brandt | Program Manager, Healthy Families America (Gering)
  • Carlee Carter | Owner, Little Cubs Daycare (York)
  • Hailey Crumley | Director, Christ Lutheran Early Childhood Community (Columbus)
  • Eric Garcia-Mendez | Director of Community Connections, Heartland United Way (Grand Island)
  • Mathew Habrock | Location Manager, LandMark Implement (Hastings)
  • Kathleen Knudsen | Director, Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (Elkhorn)
  • Jessica Lueth | Director, Cardinal Kids Learning Center and Preschool (Wayne)
  • Madonna Mogul | Executive Director, York Chamber of Commerce (York)
  • Amanda Nielsen | Program Director, CEDARS Northbridge Early Childhood Development Center (Lincoln)
  • Samantha Redfern | Economic Development Specialist, West Central Nebraska Development District (Ogallala)
  • Megan Schmidt | Principal, Kearney Public Schools Preschool (Kearney)
  • Tyler Sherman | Nurse Practitioner (Red Cloud)
  • Thelma Sims | Owner/Director, Element Learning Center (Omaha)
  • Jackie Steffen | Early Childhood Educator, Nebraska Extension (Hartington)
  • Lauren Stoklasa | Sixpence Director, Fremont Public Schools (Clarkson)
  • Andrea Thomas | Treasurer, Thomas County (Thedford)
  • Kelly Vossler | Services Coordinator, Early Development Network (Friend)
  • Ashley Wolfe | Marketing and Communications Director, League of Nebraska Municipalities (Lincoln)
  • Amanda Woolley | Program Coordinator, Dawson County Family Partners (Lexington)

Recent Posts