We Live United

Published Jan. 2, 2015: At United Way, our work is personal. Just ask Jenny Callans, United Way's Director of Early Childhood. As a mother, Jenny understands the challenges of raising children. At work, she's on a mission to help parents find resources to navigate those challenges.

Video by Charles Ashley. Story by Valerie West.

Editor's note: Check out BibtoBackpack.org to learn about resources available to you.

Jenny Callans, a self-described nerd, is known for her love of Star Trek, anime and traveling. In her professional life, she’s put her PhD in anthropology to good use as United Way’s Director of Early Childhood where she oversees several initiatives focused on childhood development.

Jenny knows our community is facing challenges, but she also knows that there are opportunities to overcome those challenges.

Milestones matter

Only 17 to 25 percent of children in our high-need communities are developmentally ready for the first day of kindergarten. Shocking, right? And this statistic has huge implications for communities. When children aren’t prepared for school, they ultimately have a higher risk of dropping out, which can lead to increased rates of unemployment and incarceration.

Jenny Callans, United Way's Director of Early Childhood, oversees several initiatives focused on childhood development.

That’s why United Way’s approach to early childhood work is so critical — many of the initiatives are geared toward parents and caregivers who help shape their children’s development. If parents and caregivers can gain access to needed resources, they can better provide for their children’s needs.

As part of Jenny’s role at United Way, she oversees and evaluates all early childhood work and maintains community partnerships with key stakeholders.

Early Learning Communities

“There are a lot of basic skills that are not natural to a parent, but they can be learned in a supportive environment,” Jenny said.

United Way’s Early Learning Community (ELC) initiative could be the key to providing these skills for parents who are seeking help with their children’s early development.

United Way offers nine full-service ELC hubs and 19 satellite locations inside partner agencies throughout Greater Detroit. In all, the model has been expanded to 65 community-based locations.

At ELCs, parents and caregivers can participate in workshops, talk with other parents and access resources from lending libraries. And while parents take classes, their children can also play and learn with other kids in a nearby room.

This work is groundbreaking because its focus is not solely on the child, but rather on informing and equipping parents for the rigors of childrearing. Parents who have taken the classes say the experience is life-changing and shapes them into better mothers and fathers.

Work that is also personal

For Jenny, the mother of two sons, Max, 14, and Oskar, 11, this work is deeply personal. She empathizes with struggling parents. While her own sons perform well in school, each one comes with a different set of challenges. What makes her household unique is that both of her sons have Asperger’s Syndrome.

Jenny faces her own challenges raising her sons, Max, 14, and Oskar, 11.

“I always tell people that I really love my kids, but I hate parenting. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

When Jenny talks about her kids, her demeanor changes. She becomes less matter-of-fact and smiles as she shares some of her family’s funnier moments. She also shares some of her fears, worrying that her sons will struggle with personal relationships. At one point, she recalls the time she asked her son who he wanted to invite to his birthday party, and he casually told her “no one.”

“It bothered me more,” she told me. “He’s perfectly happy being by himself.”

Jenny knows that all parents struggle in some capacity and believes this work can benefit anyone.

The Social Innovation Fund

“I know I’m not the only person who’s having a hard time parenting their kids,” Jenny said. “The work that we’re doing is really helping everybody to be more successful — to have a happier, more balanced life.”

There is no system of formalized care for children ages 5 and younger in Michigan, Jenny said, but that’s where the ELCs come into play — they are one way to fill this need.

United Way’s work with ELCs has been nationally recognized, which is a big deal.

In 2011, the White House awarded United Way for Southeastern Michigan a $4 million Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grant. The SIF approach is to work with partners, like United Way, who can identify some of the community’s most pressing problems through research and then inform best practices that can be implemented nationwide.

“It’s huge that Detroit has this opportunity to make this kind of impact,” Jenny said.

United Way offers nine full-service ELC hubs and 19 satellite locations that focus on providing skills to parents and caregivers.

There are currently only 26 organizations nationwide who were awarded SIF grants (of those, five were given to various United Way branches across the nation). United Way has to match the grant dollar-for-dollar, as do United Way’s partner agencies that receive SIF money. United Way applied for additional funds and was awarded another SIF grant for $2 million in 2013.

But the honor comes with challenges, one of which is fundraising while conducting and evaluating the work. Some of United Way’s SIF partners have already dropped out because they couldn’t raise the matching funds. That’s not necessarily bad news, Jenny pointed out, because while they couldn’t stay with SIF through the end, they were able to gain valuable takeaways to use at their own sites.

In this together

This work is ongoing, and preliminary evidence indicates that the ELC model is making a difference.

In one instance, Jenny highlighted an ELC that operates out of Southwest Solutions Community Schools in Detroit. Students whose parents partook in ELC workshops had a higher attendance rate than those who did not. In one particular elementary school, the attendance rate was 86.9 percent for those whose patents attended workshops, compared to 65.2 percent for those whose parents did not.

Like much of United Way's work, the success of Early Learning Communities depends upon collaboration. In an effort to raise awareness and fundraise for SIF, United Way created a new Ambassador group called Women United. (Click here to learn more about how you can be a part of this community effort.)

At times, the challenges facing Greater Detroit can feel overwhelming. When Jenny was asked why she loves the Star Trek franchise, she said “because of its eternal optimism,” which brought to mind the show’s title sequence “…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

It’s a similar optimism that drives United Way’s work in Greater Detroit. In order to realize a brighter future, we all have to work together.