Birth to Five staff, Tiffany Draine, Victoria Pearson, and Lucero Robles participate in a community event, hoping to spread the word on Birth to Five and their efforts. | Provided.

A non-profit organization is leading action groups for both community members and stakeholders to aid in the expansion of programs for early childhood education and provide additional resources to families and children under the age of six.

Birth to Five began as a response to a 2021 report by the Illinois commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care ECEC Funding that highlighted inequities in ECEC funding in Illinois, showcasing the need to develop additional statewide programs, expand services, and increase enrollment in ECEC programs. It “seeks to amplify the voices of those who have historically been minoritized, marginalized, and not invited to the decision-making table,” according to a report.

 “This is the first time that the state has taken a community systems approach to this kind of work,” said Tiffany Draine, a regional council manager. “A key takeaway, I think, is that your voice matters, your voice is heard, and your voice can make a difference.” 

Through outreach and education, Draine said they were able to have community members participate, despite some hesitation at first.  

According to Draine, they have 15 participants in the action council, five in the family council, and spoke with approximately 100 community members. 

Draine said the information received from both councils would influence future policies directly. 

“A lot of times, especially when it comes to policy, decisions are made without being informed what the community needs are,” Draine said. 

Birth to Five also created an action council, which consists of stakeholders in the community, including head start staff, child care center staff, early intervention providers, elected officials, school officials, and faith-based members amongst others. Staff from the Collaboration for Early Childhood of Oak Park and River Forest also had staff serve on the action council, which Draine said was helpful. 

“We used them as a sounding board when we got feedback from the community,” Draine said. “We had questions and answers with them, we brainstormed possible solutions to barriers to accessing services, and also used them because they are an established organization that has been around for a very long time. They kind of have the guidebook on how to do this.” 

The findings for the region in Cook County that includes Oak Park, Westchester, Forest Park, Maywood, River Forest, Broadview and as far north as Rosemont, showed there are about 39,636 children under the age of six. According to the assessment, 18,283 are under the age of three years old, and 21,353 are ages three to five years old. Of that total number, 24,465, or 61.72%, do not have space in an ECEC program. 

Additionally, the assessment showcased that the workforce for ECEC programs does not represent the racial and ethnic demographics of children in the region, along with facing the challenges of being underpaid, understaffed, and feeling without support. 

Families in the area are also facing hardships such as the lack of transportation, communication in their native language, and affordable child care. 

The assessment highlighted the five top needs for the region as increasing ECEC workforce recruitment and retention, affordable and quality child care, additional support for children with developmental delays and disabilities, childcare assisted program support, and support for families new to the United States. 

Their five top recommendations were to expand funding for publicly funded ECEC programs, increase wages for workers, increase services for children with developmental disabilities and delays, improve CCAP approval and payments for families, and provide culturally sensitive support for families new to the States. 

Now that the data has been collected, the next step is to create an action plan while continuing to involve the councils. 

“Birth to Five isn’t going to be actually quote on quote solving the problems that we identify,” Draine said. “We will be having conversations in year two with our councils to identify some strategies who can help on a local and state level to address the recommendations.” 

Birth to Five is sharing the results of the assessment with the community, said Draine, adding they will also expand on the assessments to include more information as well as support the community by expanding their partnerships and stakeholders. 

To give as much of a voice to the community as possible, Draine said both councils, family and action, are seeking members to lend their voices. Draine also said the family council has 15 open seats for community members to be a part of. Participants are selected by a committee and would attend a bi-monthly meeting either in person or via Zoom. Participants will receive a stipend. 

“We will be bringing a variety of topics to the table for them to share their expertise, input and experience and help us in our year two phase,” Draine said. 

Community stakeholders are also able to apply to volunteer for the action council. 

Deadline for the interest forms is Aug. 20th before midnight. 

“This will ultimately lead to investments in early childhood programs, which yield short term and long-term returns,” Draine said. 

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