Fifty years ago, on July 7, 1969 the Dane County Parent Council broke off and became their own independent nonprofit. This year, Reach Dane, an organization providing early childhood care to low income families, celebrates 50 years.
Over the past five decades, the organization has grown, today serving 1,000 children at 18 locations. Staff balance $17 million in donations and grants to provide holistic care for the children and the families they serve. The nonprofit has had major milestones and they hope to continue to improve in the future.
Reach Dane prioritizes families that are at 100 percent of the poverty level or below, and 10 percent of its student body must have a diagnosed disability. If a family is homeless or a child is in foster care, they are automatically eligible for Reach Dane programs, regardless of income. Considering the amount of homeless children in their care has tripled in the past four years, executive director Jen Bailey said that is important.
The organization is the only agency in Dane County that offers Head Start and Early Head Start programming with holistic care.
One of Reach Dane’s crowning accomplishments is the Early Head Start program, which started in the early 1990’s, said Bailey. The program serves pregnant mothers and their children until age 3, which Bailey said is a critical time for the developing mind and a time when families deserve all the help they can get.
More recently, in 2013, the organization was one of four in the state to receive a grant to provide health services. In addition to high quality curriculum, Reach Dane now provides health services, mental health services, disability services and dental services.
Also in 2013, Reach Dane received a grant through United Way, allowing parents to get an infant and toddler care credential at Madison College. Once they are certified, Reach Dane will qualify the parents to become an early head start teacher. SInce 2013, 12 parents have graduated from that program.
“We need staff as an agency and these are our parents that know and understand all of the services that we provide and they want to invest in them. We have a lot of great parents and leaders that we want to step up,” Bailey said.
Another monumental moment was when The Red Arrow facility in Madison was built. It was the first facility of its kind in the region to be supported by federal grants. During that time, programs had no permanent locations, but rather would rotate between churches, basements, elementary schools and even restaurants.
“It was huge at the time. Nobody had ever done that before… and now it’s become much more commonplace for there to be support for agencies to actually purchase (permanent) facilities,” Bailey said.
However, through all Reach Dane’s accomplishments, there is still room for improvement, Bailey said.
She’d like to see their teachers be paid more. Right now there is massive teacher shortages for early education, and because of that her teachers are stretched thinner and thinner, she said.
“We need to be able to pay people enough that they don’t have to work two or three jobs to work here, that they can take care of their families. And a lot of our assistant teacher folks, they make less than $15 an hour,” Bailey said.
Although Reach Dane offers support for their teachers as far as counselling and trauma informed care, she believes their teachers deserve more. Working on the local and federal level, she’d like to see an increase in pay.
Another emphasis for the agency going forward is internal work surrounding social justice and equity.
“We are doing the hard work of looking in the mirror. We currently have a fairly white leadership team, a fairly white board and 80 percent of the families that we serve are children and families of color,” Bailey said.
“We’re realizing that we as an organization, again serving all low income families and mostly families of color, we have some work to do,” she said.
During the 50th anniversary ceremony, children celebrated with a bouncy house, games and more. Families and staff toured the Reach Dane location on Milwaukee Street where picture collages lined the walls displaying the past 50 years.
Board president, Jonathan Bader gave a speech thanking the child’s first teachers — their parents. He said the spirit that started Reach Dane 50 years ago is even more necessary now as income inequalities, homelessness and racial disparities continue to grow.
“Where does the expanding ripple of compassionate action end? I don’t know – but it’s expanded outward for 50 years already – reaching more and more children and families – and with your help Reach Dane will continue to expand for 50 more,” he said.