McCormick Foundation Executive Fellows Get a 360 Degree Experience with Service Day

Amid the small businesses on bustling Archer Avenue in Brighton Park is Gads Hill Center, an early childhood center currently housed in retail space. From the outside, the facade blends in with the other storefronts but when you walk in, the space is transformed into a vibrant and welcoming learning space for children with sunshine yellow and sky blue walls, pint-sized furnishings, and activity centers filled with books, musical instruments, puzzles and toys for make-believe play.

This southwest side early care and education center is one of 12 locations in the Chicago area visited by this year’s McCormick Foundation Executive Fellows as part of their learning experience at Erikson Institute.

The fellowship program is designed for leaders in the legislative, judicial, educational, and civic sectors, providing them with a comprehensive understanding of the long-term benefits of investing in early child development to help them effectively lead, intervene, and advocate on behalf of children and families in Illinois.

“Service Day is where we bridge theory and practice for the McCormick Foundation Executive Fellows. They are immersed in the world of high-quality early childhood programs while working alongside professionals in the field, connecting what they’ve learned during Service Day with the knowledge gained from seminars,” said Penny Smith, associate director of Erikson’s Early Childhood Leadership Academy, which houses the MFEF program.

Through Service Day, fellows spend a half-day shadowing and doing the work of early childhood professionals at both home- and center-based programs. From cutting apples and serving snacks to counseling parents on social services and benefits available to them.

“My experience put on full display the need for greater investment in the people who help raise and educate our children. And, I saw firsthand how hard families work to stitch together resources to help their children. We must make a greater investment in our early childhood system—by order of billions,” said  Ameya Pawar, alderman for Chicago’s 47th Ward.

Pawar shadowed a caseworker at Gads Hill to learn how the center supports the whole family with tools and resources needed to maintain and boost home life stability. Pawar’s participation in the program helped fuel his plans to form a task force to reduce the number of Chicago families experiencing poverty. In September, he and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the creation of the Chicago Resilient Families Task Force, which is charged with modernizing and expanding access to the Earned Income Tax Credit and exploring a potential pilot of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) program.

Superintendent Jim Stelter of the Bensenville School District 2 also joined Pawar at Gads Hill Center. “Service Day was amazing. Without question, this early investment will help kids be more successful in life and in their careers. As a McCormick Foundation Executive Fellow, my key project is to spread this essential message,” he said.

After the fellowship program, Stelter was motivated to bring educators and business leaders together to discuss the importance of those early years in a child’s life and how it connects to the future workforce. As a result, Elmhurst College, in collaboration with Bensenville Chamber of Commerce and the DuPage Community Foundation, will host Geoff Nagle, president and CEO of Erikson Institute, for a presentation on “The First 1,100 Days Last Forever” on January 14, 2019.

Service Day provides fellows with a 360-degree, visceral experience to better understand the demands of early childhood professionals, and to stress the need for continued professional development, increased pay and recruitment of a diverse staff. They also gain insight on the overall operations such as the blending and braiding of funding streams to keep doors open and the need to keep up with ever-changing mandates on standards and curriculum.

The impact of Service Day provokes fellows to reflect on how they can contribute to ensuring young children get their best start to a healthy and happy life. The program is only two years old and we are already seeing movement.

Fellows have applied their learnings to inform plans for a family and community engagement center in East St. Louis, inspired one fellow to run for local office, deepened the early childhood platform of another, and encouraged an elected official to launch an education advisory committee within his district.

Watch our Service Day video to hear about this eye-opening experience.

A special thank you to the Robert R. McCormick Foundation for its generous support of the program and to our partner organizations for providing our fellows with dynamic insight into the work:

Carole Robertson Center for Learning
Chicago Commons
Christopher House
Erie Neighborhood House
Gads Hill Center
Metropolitan Family Services
SGA Youth & Family Services
Jump Smart Early Learning Academy