Have you experienced a renewed enjoyment sitting across from a friend or colleague and talking in person over a cup of coffee? The past few weeks I’ve been traveling to different parts of Nebraska to visit with more of the Policy Leadership Academy alumni. We’ve sat in local coffee shops. I’ve been given tours of unique office spaces and child care centers made inviting and colorful. Being in person with my PLA colleagues to hear their stories, catch up on what is both exciting and challenging about their work, was reinvigorating.
My recent travels took me through five communities. The first stop was at the York Public Schools Sixpence office to meet with Early Childhood Coach Chandra Berlin (PLA Class 2, third from left in above photo). Their new location is a re-appropriated nursing home with lovely, mature trees protecting it from the highway noise. The space holds offices, two preschool classes, the Head Start Program and space for parent gatherings. Chandra walked me through their wing of the building, proudly showing how the team had made the limitations of the space work for their families and children. The end of our tour led us to the part of the building she and her colleagues call “the Dungeon.” Obviously, I could not wait to see this. Two large double-doors opened to a sterile hallway, the linoleum shell of the old nursing home. Remember the moment in Wizard of Oz when the scenery went from moody gray to a vibrant technicolor? That’s what happened here, but in reverse. Chandra infuses the room with joy and it’s clear why she was honored with her community’s 2021 Impact Award for ECE Advocacy.
I met Karen Pinkelman at a coffee shop on the town square of Stromsburg, a town that has perfectly preserved a sense of the charming small town. Karen (PLA Class 2, second from right in the above photo) is also with Sixpence, serving as an Education Specialist. Karen has a thoughtful presence and an interesting path to this work. In a beautiful synchronicity with my visit to Chandra, I learned Karen was one of the visionaries behind a unique collaboration between Sixpence and the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York. The program enables incarcerated mothers to interact with their infants and toddlers as a way of improving attachment in those critical early years. She doesn’t see the work as charity; she talks about the women like friends. Like young mothers—that language makes a difference. When Karen starts talking about Sixpence and its vital impact on the community, she leans forward and her voice becomes animated. I learned so much from our conversation over coffee—both about Karen (she loves small notebooks) and the value Sixpence brings to Nebraska.
Speaking of cool coffee shops, when Elizabeth Hain (PLA Class 3) of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), suggested we meet at one of her favorite spots in York, I was caught off guard when my Google map took me to “Captain Red Beard’s Café” —not the name one would expect for a cozy corner coffee place which is probably why I loved it. Elizabeth is tied to the early childhood mission in a different role. She serves as the Executive Director of CASA for York County, an organization of committed volunteers who serve as children’s advocates in cases of abuse, proving once again that this work is vital and broad reaching. She carries herself with so much optimism, I never would guess she holds things together with some next-level organization. The case loads are heavy and volunteers are few. Elizabeth has established herself as an expert and advocate in her community, and I left with no doubt she will somehow get the right people in the room to do the right things at the right time.
The following week I popped into Hastings and sat in a corner booth with Wendy Keele and Kimberly Milovac (PLA Class 3). It was the perfect environment to plot schemes for the good of their community. These two women are hard at work in multiple corners of the town. Their understanding of the community—its politics, infrastructure and informal leaders—is vast and makes them a force not to be underestimated. Wendy is another Sixpence wonder woman who wears many hats. She’s intelligent, fierce and has a sense of humor that serves her well in her work. Among her countless projects on behalf of ECE work, she comes alongside vulnerable young mothers to ensure they have the best possible support and encouragement.
Her partner, Kimberly, is the Student Services and Engagement Director at Central Community College. Ever heard of Leapfrog Village? If you haven’t, put it on your radar. Kimberly has imagined and created a place for families to gather in low-risk, high-engaged ways that build positive bonds between parents and kids, uses accessible resources to initiate play and established an ongoing, reciprocal relationship with local business. Kimberly also came to the second PLA meeting after giving birth just a few weeks prior, her precious baby in tow. There’s no way to walk away after an hour with these two and not be energized for the work.
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