Strong bonds are forged through United In Care's network
Cynthia Russell was feeling bogged down in the details of launching her own home-based family child care business in Glassboro, New Jersey. But an unexpected and supportive call from another established provider quickly buoyed her spirits.
On the other end was her friend, confidante, and mentor, Jonte Johnson, owner of Discovering Minds Learning Center, which she operates for preschoolers inside her Glassboro home. She was calling to offer words of encouragement. The two often commiserate about marketing, social media outreach, budgeting, and managing the chaos that can erupt from caring for boisterous children at home.
“Jonte is great and her social media, her Instagram, is great,” said Russell, who opened Mrs. Cynthia Cares in the fall of 2022. “She is such a resource and inspiration. She doesn’t have all this information that she keeps to herself. She says, ‘Whatever you need, whatever advice I can give, let me know.’”
Because of calls like this, the bond grows stronger every day for Russell, Johnson, and their colleague Keonda Nesmith, who runs The Keys to Learning Family Child Care from her home in Riverside, N.J. Over the past year, the three have been participating in United In Care, a pilot program of United Way of Northern New Jersey that is assisting home-based family child care providers, also called FCCs.
Launched during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, United In Care is designed to increase access to quality, affordable and flexible child care in New Jersey. A key goal is to build capacity and sustainability in this ever-challenging industry.
This includes elevating the quality of child care offered from both FCCs and child care centers, supporting these (mostly) women entrepreneurs, and assisting families who cannot afford child care.
United In Care has a particular focus to help families considered ALICE® (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). These families make too much to qualify for government assistance but still struggle paycheck to paycheck.
Often, we associate ALICE with the families who need but can’t afford child care. However, many child care providers are ALICE themselves. They start their businesses with a desire to work with children and help families, and to support their own families. But it’s nearly impossible to sustain a family on this industry’s wages.
“These providers and early childhood educators play a critical role in our communities, and they've been largely overlooked without access to key business supports.” said Michelle Roers, United Way’s program director for the United In Care pilot. “They primarily serve families that struggle to afford the high cost of center-based care or fill in gaps in rural areas where care may be inaccessible because of distance, transportation limitations and cost.”
BUILDING RAPPORT BETWEEN PROVIDERS
Along the way, the three women have nurtured a kinship and rapport that includes checking in with each other, applauding each other’s growth, and tapping into each other’s strengths. They rely on each other for guidance and strategies on overcoming day-to-day challenges: the infant who won’t stop crying, the child who bites, the parent who is late for a pickup.
Russell and Johnson laugh about the afternoon Johnson spotted a child-sized wooden food cart posted on Russell’s Facebook page as free to anyone. With visions of her preschoolers play-acting customer and service roles, Johnson drove to Russell’s home to collect what she calls “a treasure.”
There isn’t a shred of rivalry between the FCCs as the demand for services often surpasses the supply. They are providing services desperately needed by parents, some of whom work alternate shifts (overnights and weekends) or even multiple jobs.
CREATING A COMMUNITY
“The network is much bigger than me! The support I get gives me a sense of real community,” Russell said. “I can turn to Jonte and Keonda for support and I have a whole group of other providers through the greater United In Care network to look to for help.”
United In Care operates four networks in Warren County, Morris County, Gloucester County and Jersey City. The networks are comprised of an established child care center serving as the hub and a compilation of 5-10 FCCs. Russell, Johnson, and Nesmith are part of the South Jersey Network and have found a master adviser in Joan Dillon, the executive director of Glassboro Child Care Centers.
Johnson and Nesmith traveled together in October 2022 to the three-day Child Care Success Summit in Nashville, Tennessee – a trip whose funding was arranged by Dillon.
Even at a conference, the FCCs are constantly learning from each other. Johnson admired that Nesmith, who is pursuing her master’s degree in education, used some downtime to study.
“With all the support from United In Care and the other providers I feel like I’m not alone,” Nesmith said. “When I sometimes feel like I’m stuck at home, I see others who are where I want to be, and it pushes me forward.”