Early childhood providers in Oak Park and River Forest welcomed Mary Reynolds as the new executive director of the Collaboration for Early Childhood. With an updated vision and mission outlined in its strategic plan, the nonprofit seeks to strengthen its relationships with families, widen its network of early childhood and family services providers, and center community needs, with Reynolds leading the way.
“There’s an important transition that many of us are in the process of making, from doing something for someone to doing something with someone,” board Chair Becki Streit said. “The how requires the leadership of somebody who is a great listener and really gifted at getting people to be comfortable to say what they want and need and how they would like that delivered.”
Reynolds told Wednesday Journal that the Oak Park-based nonprofit is a perfect fit for her working style and values, which she summed up as “in community, in collaboration, together.” Over the last 15 years at Casa Central, a Latino social services agency, Reynolds said she learned how to work collaboratively and center families’ needs. Until early this month, she served as vice president of children’s services and Head Start program director, overseeing early childhood learning and services. Prior to these roles, she was program director of Casa Central’s violence prevention and intervention programming and therapist for young children and families who experienced violence and trauma.
At the Collaboration for Early Childhood, she sees an opportunity to build the Oak Park and River Forest early childhood system. While there are many early childhood providers available — from health care to education to specialized services — families often have to search for and coordinate services individually, rather than having a centralized agency that can provide all the services and programs they need.
“Many of the support and services exist in silos that don’t talk to each other. One of the Collab’s main jobs is to make those silos go away and to eliminate wrong doors for parents,” Streit said.
That is why the nonprofit’s role as a convener is critical: offering services that help families navigate everything from coordinated intake to home visits. “Coordinated intake allows a family to pick up the phone, call a phone number and get an answer to the question they’re asking, no matter what the question is,” Streit said.
The publicly-funded nonprofit also has had to respond to the changes and challenges that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected both families and child care providers.
“It has never been an easy time for early child care providers. … The COVID crisis really brought that forward,” Streit said, adding providers struggle to find qualified staff and attract talent to early childhood careers, whereas many families struggle to afford child care. “That has such profound implications for family wealth.”
In response, the nonprofit has leveraged existing partnerships with local agencies and businesses to combine resources and increase their collaboration. Yet more work needs to be done.
“We’re looking forward to what needs to be built or rebuilt or redesigned,” Reynolds said, adding that hearing from community members is key to making decisions.
“Really listening to parents, caregivers, teachers, child-care providers, understanding what are their needs and then figuring out how to be responsive to those needs within the scope of the organization,” she said.
The Collaboration for Early Childhood also plans to expand its role as an advocate for early child care at the state level under Reynolds’ leadership and a full staff. Streit said that, prior to Reynolds arrival, interim executive director Laura Crawford made hires to fill some vacant positions that will be critical.
“The Collab is at this really neat point; they’ve talked about it as going deeper and wider. … I like the both/and nature of it,” Reynolds said.