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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Family day care providers get encouragement, useful tips from mentors during visits arranged by Child Care Connection Visits

Heather Dodd has been taking care of children for seven years in a basement room she converted for her child care business at 17th and Madison in Quincy.

But it took a second pair of eyes to help her see how some small changes, like a coat of paint or a sturdier gate, could improve the quality of care she offered the children in her home.

Dodd was one of 45 family day care providers who benefited from a two-year mentoring program offered by the West Central Child Care Connection. The program was funded by the Community Foundation of the Quincy Area's Communityworks Fund. The foundation provided $25,000 each year in matching funds from the Grand Victoria Fund to provide a program that would benefit families in Adams, Brown, Pike and Hancock counties.

"I thought it was a great help," Dodd said. "These weren't things I thought about, just being at my house and seeing it every day."

The Child Care Connection will highlight the program at its annual meeting at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the WCU Fellowship Hall.

As the foundation considered how it would use the funds, meetings around the region bore out what Child Care Connection officials already knew to be true from national statistics on child care. Working families needed day care but were concerned about their providers' education, turnover and wages.

The Child Care Connection was chosen for the funding, and it developed a voluntary program that sent mentors to day care providers' homes for at least eight hourlong visits to help them look at the strengths and weaknesses of their day care program.

"It made them realize that they're not alone ... that they had someone on their side," said Marla Willard, grant writer and operations manager at the Child Care Connection. "Sometimes when we're really busy just trying to meet everyone's needs, we forget where we're going in all of this."

Visiting the homes offered a chance for the mentors to see the environment and offer hands-on suggestions for improvements. It also freed the provider from having to travel for an educational opportunity.

The mentors introduced the providers to the international Family Childcare Environment Rating Scale, and worked with them to compare notes on such areas as health and safety, furnishings, personal care, and activities. They also provided $500 to buy some of the items the day care providers identified.

"It gave them more power to know where to make changes and what changes to make," said Sheila Smith, a mentor and Quality Rating System consultant at the Child Care Connection.

The providers completed reports on each visit. Their comments and other data collected show the program has answered the concerns identified in the initial meetings, Willard said.

The participants have become more invested in what they do, meaning they'll continue offering day care. They also feel more confident in taking advantage of the Illinois Department of Human Services' Quality Rating System that is tied to wages. The experience boosted the providers' opinion of themselves as professionals, developing increased opportunities for networking and interest in continuing education.

The program ended in May, and the Child Care Connection is looking for other sources of funding to continue offering mentoring. The agency has applied for a Marion Gardner Jackson Trust Fund grant and hopes to be able to use some of its state funding.

"We hope we can continue," Smith said. "It was so positive to see them become empowered and excited. No one else sees them or gives them a pat on the back. The parents could see the providers do extra things for the benefit of their children."

Dendra Curtis is one of the program participants who has been providing child care in her Quincy home for 23 years.

"I thought it was really good," Curtis said. "At first I thought it might be somewhat intimidating ... that the mentor would come in and find all kinds of things I was doing wrong. ...

"But she was nice and friendly, and she was able to give me suggestions on how to improve and enhance it. My parents noticed the changes, and they work really well for the children."

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