Katie Watson says she hardly knew how to respond when Washtenaw Promise co-founder Tim Wilson asked her what her dreams were for the children she works with at Beatty Early Learning Center.
"Just meeting basic needs is a top priority, because you won't get to the next step if children don't feel safe and loved and have enough food to eat and clothes that fit," says Watson, a behavioral specialist at Beatty, which is one of the Ypsilanti Community Schools' (YCS) early childhood programs. "So to have someone ask what my dreams are … we want to do so much, but we're working with what we've got."
She says when a parent asks her a question about a child's behavior during morning drop-off, she might be able to give that parent four or five minutes, but then her attention will inevitably be diverted by another child or a teacher who also needs her help.
"Working with Washtenaw Promise gives us the opportunity to slow down a little bit," she says.
Washtenaw Promise is an Ypsilanti-based nonprofit that seeks to remove barriers to success and increase opportunities for children to thrive, starting in early childhood. The organization does this by creating synergistic partnerships and providing tools and resources to those who work in early childhood development.
Beginning with mentorship
Wilson co-founded Washtenaw Promise with Robert Ufer about two years ago after Wilson retired from a 35-year career as an educator in Ann Arbor. Wilson knew he wanted to do something to support families with young children who were living in poverty, and as he talked with others in the community about preschool development and education, issues of trauma, poverty, and lack of staffing rose to the top of the priority list.
Wilson says Washtenaw Promise's mentor program is a "cornerstone" of the organization, with more than 20 volunteers working at various preschools and daycare centers around the county.
The idea behind the mentor program is to have a volunteer come into a school and focus all their attention on one child at a time, helping not just with academics but with emotional and social growth.
An Ypsi-based early childhood development program called Bottles-N-Backpacks is one of the partners working with Washtenaw Promise. Co-owner Kier McLemore says it's a good experience for teachers to have another adult who can "follow the lead" of the classroom teacher and help reinforce that day's lesson.
"And sometimes the individual will have a particular speciality, like speech therapy, and they can take a child off in another area at a table and work on their speech," McLemore says. "Or if they are supporting with behavior (issues), they can help a child with various tools to self-soothe so the child can effectively interact with the rest of their peers."
Wilson says many of the mentors are retired educators, but others are college students from Eastern Michigan University or the University of Michigan. He'd like to see the number of mentors grow to more than 30 by the end of 2020.
Building synergy with partnerships
When founding Washtenaw Promise, Wilson says it was important to "bring together organizations in town that are already doing some of this work, and people who can identify what works and what doesn't work."
Wilson and Ufer both cite the need for strategic collaboration as a top priority.
While establishing Washtenaw Promise, Ufer says he met many people who were "extremely talented, committed, and experienced" but "operating in silos."
"If children are going to have the opportunity they need and deserve, we need to break out of those silos," Ufer says.
Acting as a clearinghouse for information and resources and helping connect key players is also a big part of the organization's mission. In addition to formal partnerships with schools and daycare facilities, Washtenaw Promise has also made more informal connections with a variety of other organizations working with youth in the county, particularly in Ypsi.
The relationships go both ways, with Washtenaw Promise staff receiving mentorship and ideas from organizations that have been working with youth in the community for many years. For instance, Washtenaw Promise has provided funding and help for T.C. Collins to expand his mission of teaching local children gardening through his nonprofit Willow Run Acres. In return, Collins spreads the word about Washtenaw Promise at the preschools he works in.
Emmanuel Jones, founder of Ypsi-based nonprofit Mentor 2 Youth, has provided advice and perspective to Washtenaw Promise staff as well.
"When Tim first reached out … and talked about his vision for Washtenaw Promise, I just waited to see what his follow-through would be," Jones says. "Now, over two years, we've seen how Washtenaw Promise has grown and become a fixture, especially in preschools. I'm impressed by the level of commitment of the staff and volunteers."
One of Washtenaw Promise's key commitments to the community is to bring in new resources rather than compete for existing ones.
"One pledge we made to Ypsilanti was that we're not going to take money from foundations or corporations that are already giving money to Ypsilanti organizations right now," Wilson says. "We're not competing for dollars but rather bringing in brand new resources from outside the community from people who normally don't give to this community."
Recently, Washtenaw Promise expanded its mission to include projects that influence older children, with a special emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. Wilson says he hopes that strengthening those programs will stem the loss of students whose parents are choosing to go outside of Ypsi for their children's education.
"The district lost over 3,000 children over the last 15 years," Wilson says. "We want to play a part in getting people to stay in the district and even come back, and we're doing that with our support for STEM education."
Continuing the theme of building collaborations with educators who are already running successful programs, Washtenaw Promise is looking to boost the already-successful Grizzly Robotics program in the Ypsi schools.
"The robotics programs are growing in Ypsilanti and experiencing extreme successes," Wilson says. "We like to find programs that are successful, get behind them, and ask them what they need and how we can help them reach their goals."
Last fall, Washtenaw Promise gave YCS $17,000 to train 27 teachers in robotics. Four new teams have been established at area grade schools and the middle school, with a fifth in the works.
Washtenaw Promise is spreading word of its early childhood education mission in creative ways. In December the organization sponsored a screening of "No Small Matter," a documentary about the early childhood education crisis, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. It plans to sponsor a similar showing in Ypsi in March, with details to be announced. Wilson says staff will speak briefly after the film to ask the community for its support of Washtenaw Promise's mission, whether through donations or by volunteering as a mentor.
More information about Washtenaw Promise and its mission can be found at WashtenawPromise.org.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.