Shift Happens: Communities for Kids Reflects on Thriving Children 2022

When it comes to change, Buffett Early Childhood Institute’s Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference demonstrates it. So do childcare providers. So do we. Early childhood professionals had to constantly swerve throughout the pandemic to accommodate ever-changing needs.

This yearly conference brought together hundreds of Nebraska early childhood professionals, organizations, elected officials, businesses, government, and community members. This year’s event occurred in person after a pandemic-related hiatus in Kearney, Nebraska, on Monday, September 19. Despite the various professional backgrounds, the conference’s mission focuses on one goal: to cultivate a commitment to quality early childhood programming as an economic staple for thriving communities.

Luckily, our Communities for Kids (C4K) initiative and the Nebraska communities they serve are equally nimble. A Nebraska Children and Families Foundation Early Childhood program, C4K, works with communities to create and sustain early care and programming for children 0-5.

Today, we caught up with the C4K team to hear about Thriving Children 2022. Team members included: Procurement Administrative Coordinator Kara Nickel, Early Childhood Vice President Marti Beard; Associate Vice Presidents of Early Childhood Programs Jackie Farrell and Rachel Sissel; Administrative and Logistics Coordinator Catie Ganzel; and Assistant Vice Presidents of Early Childhood Melissa Polinoski, Noelle Wegner, Lindsay Bartlett, and Shonna Werth.

However, one of the unique aspects of this year’s Thriving Children included that one of the speakers was a comedian, Juli Burney. As the first in-person conference since 2019, this post-pandemic event was one of relief, challenge, and adaptation. Therefore, Jackie said humor is essential, especially for communities that transform their approach to childcare.

Jackie said, “I heard lots of positive comments, a release of tension from many people. That was just from introducing [Juli]. She was talking about communication and how it can make or break us. Bringing humor into serious conversations can change everyone’s view and bring lightheartedness to the seriousness of the situation,” said Jackie.

And Jackie is right; childcare is no laughing matter. As Nebraska, especially its rural areas, is embroiled in a childcare crisis, our childcare providers, C4K team, and communities work to address this issue. Of course, the pandemic compounded the problem.

Jackie had decided to infuse this grave matter with levity, which delivered good results.

“It was a risk to bring in a comedian, but it couldn’t have gone more perfectly,” said Marti.

“Some people talked about coming from two years of a pandemic; we talked about how shift happens. [We said] to [everyone], ‘Turn to your supervisor and say, ‘Shift happens,’ three times,’” she said.

Shonna added that shifting is essential. “Every community goes into the plan of what they envision they want to do. Eventually, they have to shift their ideas of what [we’ll implement] into our communities.”

Shonna cited Wood River as one example of an ever-shifting community. She said the community was in the process of planning a new center to build on donated land. When the onsite nursing home flooded and evacuated, the owners decided to sell that structure.

In turn, their early childhood team decided to shift. They invested in buying the nursing home and remodeling it.

“Instead, they shifted the nursing home to a place for early childhood and different [community] uses. That’s just one story. Almost every community has that shift,” said Shonna.

Rachel concurred. “At’ shift happens,’ there were so many people [present]; that shift legalized the use of the word ‘shift.’ Communities recognize we’re pivoting. There’s a growth mindset.”

Of course, the process of creating childcare is far from that easy, but thanks to Thriving Children, we and our partners help plant the seeds of early childhood programming, and yes, they eventually bloom.

For Catie, her first Thriving Children experience was a memorable one.

“The networking and communication were huge. Everybody else had that same aspect of seeing everyone and getting that connection. Watching day one versus day two, [the conference] became way more personal.”

Melissa agreed. For her, one of the most pivotal experiences included witnessing attendees’ lightbulb moments.

“I had a lot of positive community feedback,” said Melissa. “Also, the breakout sessions gave practical [insights into]…something that worked in this community; it can work in yours. There were ah-ha moments, [such as attendees realizing ‘I….should learn about other initiatives, how they’re working, and how [I] can apply [their strategies] to childcare.’”

On the other hand, Rachel said she experienced a different kind of a-ha moment. According to her, particularly inspiring moments included when previous childcare skeptics dramatically altered their stances.

According to Rachel, one naysayer who returned to the conference said he saw communities’ impressive results.

Still, more humor continued.

Lindsay said that during a breakout session, the team continued to use fun in engaging everyone, including their funders.

“Usually, when you walk into a breakout room, it’s this fifth wall; you’re not supposed to break it between funded and funder,” she said. “So, we made a joke about it, by playing Pink Floyd and Abba’s money songs.”

On a more serious note, Shonna said that she continues to work toward enhancing diversity throughout Nebraska’s early childhood programs.

“There’s much work to do; we know it’s hard to recruit in this field,” Shonna posed some rhetorical questions to emphasize the importance of diversity. “Why does it matter? Why should we not have only white English-speaking women in childcare? We need to recognize and support communities and find people to be those voices.”

We couldn’t agree more. And we and our expert teams will continue to work with communities to create innovative childcare solutions. All the while, we’ll find laughter throughout our serious hard work.

Thank you to everyone, including Buffett Early Childhood Institute, the many supportive sponsors, such as First Five Nebraska among several others, and all of our C4K communities and Nebraska Children staff, for making this event a memorable and shifting one.

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Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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