One of the greatest assets we can instill in our children is empathy and a love of the arts.
Our most valuable professionals, moreover, are those who care for our children during their most important years: our childcare providers!
When the Loup Valley Childhood Initiative (LVCI) decided to host almost 30 early care providers for the Crane River Theatre’s moving play, Pretty Fire, the team sought to celebrate providers and a love for the performing arts.
LVCI is a community-driven team that works with Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s Communities for Kids (C4K), our early childhood initiative that provides technical expertise, supports, and solutions that suit each location’s early care and education needs for children birth-5.
One of the things we love the most about working with communities to create quality care and education is the innovative ways the teams take the reins to drive home the message—childcare is important. Our children are important. Our communities are important.
If you speak with three LVCI members, Katie Walmsley, Melani Flynn, and Kristina Foth, you’ll see this creativity is apparent.
Each person comes from a compelling background. Kristina is the LVCI Social Media and Outreach Coordinator and is the former Executive Director for Valley County Economic Development. Melani Flynn is the LVCI Co-Coordinator and a Law Associate. Katie is the LVCI Coordinator and Deputy Director for Valley County Economic Development and the Ord Area Chamber.
When we visited these dynamic leaders, we wanted to know, what inspiration provoked such a successful idea?
Katie said that much like all of LVCI’s work, she and her teammates had put in a fair amount of thought and collaboration.
“We’d been looking to include arts into education for childcare providers,” she said. “We asked ourselves, how do we use the arts to educate them and make education more fun for them?”
The play, Pretty Fire, came to mind. A story of a young Black girl’s struggles and experiences, the play chronicles how our life events shape our beliefs and thoughts.
“We spoke with Crane River about how we could relate the play to [our childcare providers],” said Katie.
“It became this great story about how other people have experiences that shape their perspectives, and for us to recognize that we can enhance our ability to be more compassionate humans.”
Using their funding, the team chose to make the event even bigger still.
Katie related LVCI’s vision to her Early Childhood Coordinator colleagues from Sandhills First Steps and 4 County Kids. Both are other C4K communities.
Katie said that she and the other Early Childhood Coordinators, Melissa Crawford from 4 County Kids and Theresa Petska from Sandhills First Steps, were intentional in their execution.
“We wanted to bring everyone together because our providers are all so different,” she said. “Valley County is primarily made up of licensed providers; Custer has several licensed centers, and Garfield has a lot of unlicensed providers.”
“I said we need to do a regional event, not just for Valley County, but a regional providers’ event!” said Katie. [The other Early Childhood Coordinators] were pumped; we had great feedback [in response to the event] from other licensed providers,” said Katie.
“Our idea was to bring a diverse group together for mentorship opportunities,” she said. “For example, maybe an in-home provider could mentor an unlicensed provider, or a center provider could mentor an in-home provider on becoming a licensed center.”
“We said, ‘Let’s get all [our childcare providers] together to share their struggles and successes and thank them for what they do.’ They’re an important part of children’s lives and our economy!”
Katie said the event was a remarkable success.
“Some providers said, ‘We’re blown away that you wanted to thank us.’ I said, ‘You shouldn’t be at this event to feel thanked; you should always feel that way!’”
29 providers were attending the play, with 27 present at the dinner. LVCI and partners put comment cards on the table with prompts to share humorous stories and relate some of the funny things that children in their care have said.
For one activity, the hosts added up the number of years that everyone provided care—which came to a grand total of 438 years of combined experience!
“At my table, I sat with a woman who had done care for 49 years and had cared for 402 children,” said Katie.
Kristina chimed in to say that this evening’s success entailed some dynamic collaborations.
“This [effort] is illustrative of community development efforts throughout the area,” she said. “[Providers] are looking forward to more experiences like this that engage arts, culture, and continued education. Nebraska Children can help us offer these things for our area.”
Melani said she was fascinated by the providers’ diversity.
“At my table, we had a good mix of center and in-home providers,” she said. “I liked most the parts where we talked about ways they care for children. I learned a lot, and I can see they learned from others,” she said.
But for Melani, the event didn’t simply center around arts and culture and gratitude.
“I think it’s important to create networking opportunities,” said Melani.
“[Providers] are professionals; other professionals have these opportunities. I don’t know if [childcare professionals] had this chance before. I said, ‘Let’s collectively learn from each other, so all our children are better cared for!’ That was [great] to see the providers connect.”
Kristina added that there was an expansive age range of attendees.
“Some people were younger, for example, student age; others had been in the business for 30 or 40 years; there was a mix of demographics.”
Katie, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of how other communities have used arts and culture as educational tools. She and the team continue to plan their next collaboration after speaking with a local filmmaker and several other artists.
“[The filmmaker] said that he can’t change perspectives in conversation because he isn’t articulate, but if you see his film, it can shift your perspective. I said, ‘Oh, wow! Arts and culture can shift perspective!’”
Melani said that her mother is an inspiration behind the team’s constant love for creating inclusive and engaging spaces. “She’s the director of the Golden Husk, where we held the play,” said Melani.
But, as with everything LVCI does, the core team has carefully leveraged their team members’ strengths.
“A few years ago, Kristina and I focused on asset-mapping our community members, with a focus on creatives,” said Melani
“Everyone is creative; everyone is innovative! When we look at our community members as creatives, [each one] can look different. A mechanic is a creative, an artist is a creative, a physical therapist is creative!” said Melani. “This finding planted the seed,” she said.
Melani said that looking at communities through creative lenses can continue to bridge gaps and create connections.
“We can come from different political views and join a show; it’s a unity. Shout out to my mom. She taught me the importance of that,” she said.
Kristina said that over the past decade, Valley County has recognized the arts, culture, and childcare as economic drivers.
“Why not take childcare, an economic driver, and put the arts together? This event was the perfect mash-up of that! The providers enjoyed it; everyone benefits!” said Kristina.
According to Katie, since learning through play is a core early learning tenet, adults can also engage in this form of education! “What better way to learn from play than learning from a play?” Said Katie.
But for such an energetic team, this event is only the beginning.
Since we last visited LVCI, Melani shared that their work has since exploded in countless directions. Recently, an achievement included drawing up plans for a childcare center!
“We formed a nonprofit. We have our 501(c)(3) status!” said Melani.
Melani said that LVCI is committed to supporting the quality care they already have, beyond the evening they hosted.
For the LVCI team, this event is only the beginning.
Kristina also expressed gratitude for Nebraska Children.
“This is a nod to [Nebraska Children],” she said. “These [childcare supporting] people and thoughts were there before, but ever since we created LVCI with Nebraska Children’s support, we’ve fielded questions from people interested in getting into the early care industry, primarily as providers.”
Katie said before Nebraska Children worked with the team to create LVCI, the group would have gotten stuck between inquiry and action.
“Now, even if we don’t know the answer, we can point [those interested in creating childcare] in the right direction,” she said.
Melani said there are many ways to include everyone in the community who provides care to feel engaged.
“The main thing I’m passionate about is the focus on quality care AND enough care,” said Melani, “So everyone has a safe, wonderful place to grow as a little human being! These [children] are our little human beings!” she said. “I’d love to have those great-grandmas and everyone providing care to attend a free training! We could eventually serve all providers, like free CPR training,” she said.
“My grandma happened to be CPR-certified and saved my little cousin’s life when he fell in the pool,” she said. “We can even continue with arts and culture to put on a play [in the center].”
“We’re creating an environment where kids go to learn and grow ALONG WITH our community!” she said.