Edison Neighborhood

An Edison Dreamery: Trained childcare staff employed at early education centers across Kalamazoo

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — YWCA Kalamazoo and the Kalamazoo Literacy Council are making sure that Edison neighbors can take care of Edison children — and get paid as childcare professionals.

The Edison Early Childhood Education Career Pathway started as a pilot program in 2021, intending to get staff for the YWCA's The Dreamery, a 24/7 childcare center at The Creamery in Edison. 

Now there are over 30 people, mostly Edison residents, employed at The Dreamery — plus at the childcare centers at El Concilio, S.E.E.D.S-Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Jennings Development Interplex, Pre K International, Downtown YWCA Kalamazoo, Little Scholars-Goodwill/Kalamazoo Literacy Council, Amazing Grace Childcare Center, and two home providers.

The program expanded to other core Kalamazoo neighborhoods, but it's still Edison-focused. The goal is to get local non-traditional applicants on a path to a new career and get certified as a Childcare Development Associate (CDA),  a nationally recognized certificate for childcare professionals. 

"The idea was to recruit from the neighborhood that is going to benefit, and the neighborhood that needs it," KLC Executive Director Michael Evans says. "That was our premise."

"Who is this woman? How did she get here? How. Did. She. Get. Here?!?"

They weren't sure if the pilot program would work, but with partners including the YWCA, Southwest Child Care Resources (who run the CDA apprenticeship program in Kalamazoo), and a few generous grants, "Lo and behold, by the time (The Dreamery) opened, all the positions were filled," Evans says.

"And over half of them were from Edison residents. We were able to get some of them right out of our adult ed programs for people who were looking for a first chance or a second chance at their next good career."

One of these adult learners is Lawonda White. She was among the first to staff The Dreamery when it opened. She's now CDA certified and is a program coordinator for YWCA Kalamazoo. For much of her life, she lived on Stockbridge in Edison and just bought a house on Lay Boulevard.

Lawonda White earned her certificate for working with infants and toddlers through the Edison Early Childhood Education Career Pathway.She came to KLC in 2014, wanting to improve her literacy skills. She was working the third shift at a factory, and looking at her life from the vantage point of 30. 

White decided she needed goals, "educating myself, getting my degree, impacting my community, being part of something greater than myself, like the career pathway and working with children in my neighborhood," White says.

Now at 41, she looks at where she is and exclaims, "Who is this woman? How did she get here? How. Did. She. Get. Here?!?"

White chose the ELP (early learning professional) pathway because in 2020, COVID disrupted her work life. "I'm like, 'Okay, I got to get back to work.' I'm that type of person that has to keep on working, keep on doing something. I have to make myself useful."

She wanted to have an impact, somewhere. "Because I know I have an aura and I have this personality that everybody should be able to experience because I know I give off energy!"

White apprenticed at The Dreamery, and her coaches at the KLC encouraged her to take the next step, to get her CDA.

"I took the CDA class and I cried! I cried because I didn't know I was going back to school!" she says, laughing. 

With support from KLC — "It's all about that support!"  — she earned the certificate in 2022. Now she's thinking of going for a bachelor's degree.

Did she ever dream of getting a job like this? 

"I did not. And I had very, very low self-esteem. I did it all for my son because my son, he has a disability and he struggles with some things. And I struggle with reading, my writing," she says.

"It's been so beautiful being able to see myself grow and being able to impact children in my community."

Who would make a good Early Learning Professional?

People interested in getting on the Edison ECE Career Pathway start with a questionnaire. They'll then go through training in child development, work in a paid internship at The Dreamery or other centers, and eventually be paid to earn a CDA.

The questionnaire filters out people who might not fit the pathway. To be an ELP, there's one big requirement — "I think when you're working with children, you need to love what you do," Kamila Tursunova, Edison ECE Career Pathway Project Coordinator for the YWCA, says. 

Childcare facilities that sign up for the program need to guarantee pay of at least $15 an hour, which is "very powerful, because the average salary for early childcare is lower than $15," Tursunova says.

Michael Evans, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Literacy Council, with Kamila Tursunova, Edison ECE Career Pathway Project Coordinator for the YWCA.A paycheck should be a motivator, she says, "but you need to first of all love children, love to learn, and develop your skills."

Also, "I think those who love living in the Edison community" would make the best candidates for the job, she says. "Those who live in the community are so inspired to be here and help the community, because at the end of the day, by teaching those children...  Those kids will be our future in the Edison neighborhood and they will make our neighborhood better," Tursunova says.

"What we are trying to do to help them go through it, to make it faster, easier, and at the same time, we also help those childcare providers that hire them." When an ELP is hired, they can continue their education with "multiple programs that we can help this person with to improve professionally," she says.

The people they train are not to be just glorified babysitters, Evans says.

"It's not daycare either. It's childcare. We don't take care of days. We take care of children. We're not babysitting. We're developing children," he says.

The KLC's focus is primarily on adult literacy, helping people get their GEDs, improve job skills, learn English as a second language, and other skills. The nonprofit is celebrating its 50th year. 

The KLC is Edison-based, and Evans is an Edison resident. There's long been a shortage of early childcare in the neighborhood, he says. So when he got a 2020 call from Nicole Blum, then the early learning program manager for YWCA Kalamazoo, asking if the KLC could train Edison residents to staff a new childcare facility, he told her she called the right place.

"It's our job to put people on the path to a living wage job and fill in the gaps that they might have," he says. 

Outside of the YWCA Dreamery, the 24-hour early childhood drop-in center at Edison's The CreameryFor the planned Dreamery they needed 15 positions — and soon. Finding credentialed early learning professionals is a big challenge, for many reasons, Evans says. 

"One, the compensation for early learning professionals is far too low. So, to go through the credentialing process and then find out that you're getting paid less than a person who might be bagging groceries — that's kind of disappointing."

Retention in the field is also extremely low. An option for a facility like The Dreamery could be to get college graduates or students looking to step into careers as educators. Low pay would eventually have them moving on to other positions, facilities, and communities. 

Also, they would likely be from outside of the community, and not have a connection with the children under their care, Evans points out.

"The likelihood of them graduating with that degree, doing their internship, and staying (in Edison) is a lot less than the person who's been in this neighborhood for 20 years and calls it home," Evans says.

Inside view of the YWCA Dreamery, the 24-hour early childhood drop-in center at Edison's The Creamery"And we did a survey of our parents and one of the things they said is, 'Yeah, I want someone who understands my child. I want someone who understands my community.'

"Is it a requirement? No. But does it make you feel more comfortable leaving your little scholar with them? Definitely. You know my neighborhood, you know me."

The KLC also surveyed potential employers at childcare centers. They told the KLC, "I want someone who's not afraid of the neighborhood," Evans says. "This is a benefit for them to have someone who is familiar with, accustomed to, a part of, and proud of the neighborhood that they're in. As opposed to someone who walks into the Edison neighborhood and they're surprised by some of our challenges, intimidated to the point where they don't feel that they can be a good professional here."

Evans continues, "Or they look at our neighborhood not by its benefits and opportunities. They're only looking at the hard things and saying, 'I'm going into a hard neighborhood.' We don't want people thinking that.

"They're going into our neighborhood to serve our families and children."

From diaper changing to library field trips

The typical day at The Dreamery starts at 6:30 AM for White and arriving children.

They get a snack, and smell the blueberry pancakes cooking for breakfast, "We have some music, a welcoming, arrival. We'll be singing 'Good morning! Good morning, Lawonda! Good morning!'" she sings.

"It's a typical beautiful day where children are learning. We've got drop-in, and we got five other classrooms where we have three different staff, educators that are in there with six children in each classroom, and they're educating.

Lawonda White now works at the YWCA's Dreamery."And I'm just going by, make sure they have everything that they need, materials to say their ABCs, one-two-threes, colors. They're identifying, they're pointing, they're identifying their feelings — we have a feelings map.

"How are you feeling? 'I'm sad.' They can point to sad. We're teaching them how to deal with their emotions and how to identify and how to self-regulate."

The age range for the early childhood education classes is six weeks to three years old, and drop-ins accept children up to 12, so activities range from diaper changing to Washington Square Library field trips.

Back on her own block, White sees many of the Dreamery children. "We have neighborhood kids all the time that we care for when we teach at the center," White says.

"Outside of work, they just love me, and I'm still teaching them outside of work, you know, how to behave.... Just looking out for the children and making sure that they feel safe in the community, and that they know there's somebody's always there if it's not at work or at the center."

Local kids and parents know, she says, "There's somebody in the neighborhood that works at the center that knows the neighborhood, that cares about us."

The future of early childcare education: “People are not going to stop having children”

"Our children deserve high-quality childcare," White says. "They deserve to be taught. They deserve all the opportunities that every other child has."

The Edison ECE Career Pathway program should continue far into the future, because "I see it as a forever issue," Evans says.

Or, as White puts it, "Childcare is the number one need. Why? Because people are not going to stop having children. And parents have to go to work to provide, right?"

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.