Foundation-led coalition works to stabilize, strengthen early childhood sector

During the height of the pandemic, one-third of child care providers in Milwaukee County closed temporarily.  

Those owners who kept their centers open — such as Felicia Smith and Ruby Grisby — found it to be quite the herculean task to keep operating. Without assistance from groups such as the MKE Civic Response Team, they could easily have been forced to close their doors too.  

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation launched the cross-sector coalition in March 2020 to provide an aligned and strategic community response to COVID-19. The group provided a vital lifeline to these business owners through stabilization grants and other resources, made possible by the MKE Responds Fund and its donors. A year later, the group, now known as the MKE Civic Action Team, continues to advocate for systems change to improve the sector and improve equitable access for all families.  

“The team has been an absolute blessing,” said Tamara Johnson, executive director of Malaika Early Learning Center in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood and one of the team members. “We’ve been barking up the same trees for a very long time in this sector. To have a unified civic response team to go to, as the catalyst for change, as our convener, has been extremely helpful.”  

Team members met weekly to address issues facing the sector. They relied upon the firsthand experiences of providers, who early on said they wouldn’t make it without additional funding, said Kelly Hook, director of donor and partner engagement at the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.  

Shortened hours of operation and decreased enrollment led to decreased revenue. At the same time, providers incurred greater expenses due to the need for personal protective equipment and extra cleaning supplies.  

“For a sector that survives on razor-thin margins, there was no extra cushion for this,” Hook said.  

The response team awarded its first round of stabilization grants in May 2020, targeting ZIP codes that served primarily Black and Latinx families. The application process was straightforward and funding was unrestricted. Hook said continuous improvement was paramount to the team, and, as a result, each round was structured differently. Programs not funded in the first round were prioritized in the second. In round 3, the team reached out to remaining programs through phone calls, emails and targeted deliveries of flyers in English and Spanish. Ultimately between 75 and 85 percent of eligible providers received funding. 

Smith had to cut staff hours at her center, Only God Can Children’s Academy, due to decreased enrollment, which she said was “the most hurtful thing.” Having taken out personal loans to pay staff, she used the grant toward payroll and appreciated that it came with no strings attached.  

At Grisby’s Development Center, the grant covered costs associated with additional unforeseen challenges. The roof of the building leaked, causing her to replace rugs and other damaged items.  

“They listen to what the needs are and look for ways to make it happen,” said Yimma Davila-Castro, who represents Proveedoras Unidas, a group of Latinx-owned providers. She brought providers’ concerns directly to the team. In return, she shared resources, information and opportunities with providers. 

Members agreed it was a tremendous example of how philanthropy should work. The group’s responsiveness, collaboration and collective expertise has led city and state decision-makers to actively seek out the group’s advice ever since.

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