United In Care pilot project inspires business mentorship and peer support
Joan Dillon is helping to polish the professional attributes and business acumen of home-based family child care providers she mentors through United Way of Northern New Jersey’s United In Care pilot program.
To three of the United In Care providers – Jonte Johnson and Cynthia Russell of Glassboro in Gloucester County and Keonda Nesmith of Riverside in Burlington County – Dillon, who runs Glassboro Child Development Centers, is more than just a trusted confidante and advisor.
“Joan is not only a mentor, she’s like a mother to us,” said Johnson, owner of Discovering Minds Learning Center in Gloucester County.
Dillon’s approach to mentorship made her and her child care center the ideal candidate to serve as a hub for this pilot project, which seeks to improve access to quality, affordable child care. Dillon and the three home-based providers are the pioneers of United In Care’s South Jersey Network.
The program’s model pairs a licensed child care center with local home-based family care providers, called FCCs, to create a shared-services network that expands capacity and increases the quality of care. It also establishes a mentor/protégé relationship between the center and the providers, as well as support between the providers themselves.
While the goal is to increase affordability for working families called ALICE® (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), a major focus of United In Care is to support the professional development and business sustainability of the participating FCCs, many of whom are ALICE themselves.
PAYING IT FORWARD
That’s why Dillon didn’t hesitate when United Way asked if her center would serve as the South Jersey hub.
“I feel like it’s my job to pay forward the support I received in all my years in the child care industry,” Dillon said. “One of the biggest challenges faced by home-based providers is the feeling they are alone, but they aren’t. We’re there to support them and share whatever we can with them.”
Dillon has gone above and beyond, making available ongoing educational classes to the home-based providers. She also paid for Johnson and Nesmith to attend the nation’s largest conference dedicated to the business of child care — Child Care Success Summit 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. The conference gave them a chance to network with other providers and learn about new strategies for things like enrollment building, budgeting, and marketing.
“I left Nashville with my cup full,” Johnson said. “I left there crying. I was so grateful to be there and be in rooms with like-minded people. To me, that was so inspiring.”
Nesmith, who runs The Keys to Learning out of her home, agreed: “My cup was overflowing.”
Russell, who operates Mrs. Cynthia Cares, couldn’t attend but Dillion said she has a standing invitation to attend next year.
Dillon treats the trio as an extension of her own staff, inviting them to participate in all training sessions, including CPR and First Aid certification courses, and to special staff-only events. She also shares her center’s forms and checklists for managing an array of situations ranging from backyard safety and non-payment for services to how to capture the attention of wayward children.
“We share whatever we can with the FCCs,” Dillon said. “We’re trying to fill and close gaps…in a way that is transformational.”
The opportunities to hone their professional skills are plentiful through United In Care.
“The care providers are running these businesses independently. They’re an island unto themselves,” said Michelle Roers, United Way’s program director for the United In Care pilot. “Having a community of professional support is game changing. They have a trusted network in which they can bounce ideas off each other, have consultation sessions and leverage resources. The center hub plays a key role in the mentoring but, equally, the other providers serve as mentors to each other.”
To build this community, United In Care’s Child Care Specialist Amanda DiScala hosts a weekly Zoom meeting that bring together all the project’s home-based child care providers across its four regional hubs in Warren, Morris/Sussex/Essex, Gloucester, and Hudson counties.
Over Zoom, the providers hash out concerns and receive instruction on subjects ranging from social-emotional curriculum to income and expenses related to operating a child care business.
“Everyone needs a support group and I’ve found one through this program,” Nesmith said. “We talk about budgeting, children who bite, policies and procedures, marketing, everything you can think of.”
Underlying the United In Care pilot is adherence to quality standards set by Grow NJ Kids, the state-sponsored quality rating improvement system designed to raise the level of early learning and preschool provider care.
This process is critical to the success of home-based child care providers. A higher rating means the provider will receive a larger child care subsidy payment from families who qualify for government-sponsored child care assistance.
“We’re not babysitters,” Nesmith proclaimed. “I’m teaching children and giving them a real preschool education.”
Like her counterparts who rearranged their homes to safely accommodate youngsters, Russell said she was trained by United In Care staff and through suggestions from Glassboro Child Care Development Centers on classroom set-up, including furniture placement.
In one instance, her infant changing table initially faced a wall. She was advised to turn it around so that she could observe other children while changing a baby. Sometimes a subtle change like this is significant in terms of safety and can be the difference between a 3-star and a 4-start rating, DiScala said.
The home-based child care providers also are offered computer skills training through United In Care and access to Procare Solutions, daycare management software that assists in organizing family information, attendance, records, immunizations, and details essential to their businesses. These supports are helping to enhance overall business operations and build towards greater business sustainability.
“It’s been my dream to start my own child care program, but I wouldn’t be at the level I am without United In Care,” Russell said. “Joan and United In Care are setting us up for success.”