“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
I have a library of Mr. Rogers quotes in my head, but this one sits near the top of the list. This past month, I hit the road to visit a cadre of heroes—those who have seen the need and are responding: alumni of FFN’s Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leadership Academy in the western area of the state.
Creating educational equity
First stop—a visit with Cara Small (Class 1) in her office at ESU 6 in Milford. Cara and her contagious smile are a power plant of energy for the special services and early childhood work happening in Milford and the surrounding areas. I heard how she is successfully bringing educational equity for young learners and expanding collaborations with partners around the community.
Leaving the Interstate offered an exploration of bits of rural Nebraska. Every stop for gas or coffee was a chance for a quick conversation with someone behind the counter or mulling the road-trip snacks. (And surprise, surprise. When I asked you to take me to Funky Town, I did not expect it would be on a two-lane highway in southwestern Nebraska.)
One of my scheduled stops came by invitation from the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America to bring a keynote presentation at their district meeting. The topic: Community Advocacy. They were engaged, motivated, and—by the end of our hour together—excited about their specific vision and next steps for their schools, communities and careers in education, policy work and family support.
McCook is home to roughly 7,500 people and three early childhood advocates changing their community for the good. Class 2 alum Tasha Wulf offices with UNL Extension, creating curriculum and continuing education for future early childhood teachers and those already doing the good work. Her contributions to quality ECE are far reaching. And the duo of Andy Long, executive director of McCook Economic Development Corporation, and Milva McGhee, a current PLA class member, have set the example for access and use of LB840 monies in different communities across the state.
Red Cloud boasts another powerhouse duo. Sally Hansen, board president of the Valley Child Development Center, is a Class 1 alum. Meggan Messersmith is the executive director and a member of the current PLA class. She brings a vibrant and solution-oriented voice to the current class. To say I was inspired by the work Sally, Meggan and their team are doing in Red Cloud would be an understatement. The outdoor classroom had me wanting to join in the fun in the mud kitchen or start a sing-along on the wooden stage decked out with colorful Stevie Nicks scarves. I also left with fresh produce grown by their youngest learners and harvested from their garden classroom.
The next leg of my travels took me Lexington, Gothenburg, North Platte and Ogallala. Tracy Naylor (Class 2) directs the busy, community-oriented Early Childhood Education program for Lexington Public Schools. Inside their colorful space, they teach and care for more than 230 children with 230 different stories. They were walking out to the bus as I arrived, curious little humans carrying a kaleidoscope of backpacks.
Building strong EC connections
If you want to see the reality of a collaborative vision coming to life, look no further than Gothenburg. Nichole Hetz (Class 2), coordinator for the Gothenburg Early CLC, is part of a web of leaders invested in shoring up all the elements that support a vibrant community for their youngest residents and their families. Starting from a grassroots position, Gothenburg has coordinated with their economic development leadership, the local hospital and board leaders. When I think of ECE coalition building, I think of Nichole and how “she gets it.”
Caroline Sabin (Class 2) sat in the retro cottage that hosts Families 1st Partnership to talk about the breadth of support needed by families in the North Platte area—support for issues that stem from a lack of quality partnerships available to parents, many who are repeating cycles from their own early childhood experiences. I left my visit with Caroline inspired for the impact that this work could have on whole generations.
When I pulled up to the North Platte Public School Buffalo Early Learning Center, the outside reminded me of every elementary school I’ve visited over my years as an education advocate. Walking through the glass doors was like stepping into a magic wardrobe. Peggy Romshek (Class 2) met me outside her office where there sat a tiny-person-sized modern-style rocking chair—a hint at the way everything in this building has been intentionally designed for children’s minds and bodies. Like Red Cloud, Buffalo Early Learning Center has an outdoor classroom—built and planned by community members. They also share the space with Special Services and Head Start, creating a collective impact for North Platte families.
It’s easy to focus on the wins and misses in our own community, but when we pull back on the map view a little bit, we see how people all over the state are changing the world for the better—for the children and families they serve now and those who have yet to walk through their doors.
Thank you PLA alumni for all the ways you have seen and responded to the needs in your communities. Now on to more good work.