If you’ve heard of Parent Ambassadors from Educare you’re likely a preschool parent. Either that, or you are on one of the various boards, agencies or advisory groups that count one as a member. Or you’re one of the government officials or representatives they’ve interacted with over the years on things like FEDCAP, TANF, expanding preschool services, adding adult dental care to Mainecare, or maybe you just stopped in for some facetime and a photo-op.
If you didn’t know, things have gotten a bit wobbly for parents over the last few years. If you have children you have likely experienced just about every setback, pitfall, obstacle, unexpected responsibility and inconvenience that the last 3 years offered. Parent Ambassadors are no exception. Think about it like this, Ambassadors are like advocates from a really good school in a working class town. In this industry good almost always means well-funded, as startup capital is one of the most critical factors to long-term success for advocacy groups. We’re not only well-funded, we’re damn good at what we do.
Educare isn’t just a preschool or an Early Head Start provider or a childcare provider, we’re all of those things and a lot more. Educare was actually rated as one of the top anti-poverty programs in America by the Urban Institute. We’re part of a national network connected to at least three Billionaire families, one of which is local (the Alfonds) and their friends (the Buffets). There are Educare preschools all over the country but Maine was the first to be rurally located. That might sound odd, seeing as most Mainers wouldn’t consider Waterville particularly rural, but by American standards we are tiny and out of the way.
Out of that funding has come a model for delivering a wide variety of services. The school is under the umbrella of a CAP Agency (Community Action Program) which in our state is often the primary provider of social services in an area. People don’t typically go to DHHS for common non-federal services. Heating assistance, Rental Assistance, Childcare, Pre-K, Housing, all done through the CAP system.
You can thank Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society initiatives for that. See, along with establishing well known things like Medicare, Medicaid, and the preschool system, the Great Society also created a bunch of lesser known programs. One of the most important was the Community Action and Community Development Programs. These are now doled out in general block grants to fund the operations of the CAP system as we know it.
But when it was first started it was actually a way to offer local governments money in exchange for requiring them to get their entire strategy, and reasoning for spending that money, from the public itself. To qualify, municipalities had to go out into the community and find people who understood the needs of the community, create positions of leadership for them and ask them to build a program that would work for their community specifically. And from that all sorts of great ideas were born. Some were so good that even if the city or town didn’t win the money they just decided to spend the money out of their own pockets anyway.
Maine hasn’t changed its basic structure this entire time because the CAP system has always been good at doing exactly what it was designed to do. So, we have this Great Society program that facilitated the development of Educare in a way that maximized its potential to serve the community. It has become a hub for services and a growing infrastructure that has excelled at creating advocates.
Here’s the thing, the parents and families of the Educare school don’t come from an abundance of resources. We still live in Waterville and all that that entails. Some of us live only a block away from the school in one of the lowest income areas of the city. Others live around the corner from the CAP headquarters in the other lowest income area of the city. Others from around the state are immigrants, adoptive or foster parents, grandparents raising their grandchildren, single parents trying to make it through college, aunts and uncles trying to hold together whole families, and so on. So there are those of us who walk into this amazing machine of good things and we immediately think, “Why isn’t it always done this way?”
It’s those folks who become Parent Ambassadors. A lot of those parents then go on to become Alumni and stick around to continue their path in advocacy: joining agency boards, advocacy groups, policy organizations, running for office and helping guide the newest members. And all along we have taken the approach that it is not enough to advocate for children in the context of school because we don’t think that actually addresses the whole family environment of children. And you cannot help families if you are not helping communities.
So what does that mean? That means we want to take a new approach to being a parent within these systems. We want to be a primary source of information so we are starting a newsletter. Some of us want to improve our neighbors’ conditions, so we are building relationships to address issues in public housing. Some of us are creating a state policy agenda with our long-time partners. Some are forming nonprofits to organize and empower parents by giving them their own structures and resources as well as the understanding to utilize those things for their own purposes.
We come from a broad cross-section of this state. We’ve got Recovery Advocates, Conservative Christians, Immigrants, US transplants, and long-time residents. All of whom are a lot like you, a parent who deals with social and economic systems everyday, a lot of which admittedly resemble a meat grinder with a smiley face slapped on it at the moment.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And we’ve decided we won’t rest or let it rest until it isn’t, in whatever ways we are able. If you would like to learn more about Educare in Maine, Parent Ambassadors, and the people involved in it, please visit their website here.