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When the Infant Welfare Society of Evanston’s (IWSE) Baby Toddler Nursery opened its doors in August 1971, it was the first of its kind in Illinois and only the fifth in the nation. What made it novel was the population it served: the nursery cared for infants between the ages of six months and two-and-a-half years, Mondays through Fridays, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
This milestone event is cause for celebration on its own, but even more so this year after what the teachers, staff, families, and children at IWSE have experienced over the last 15 months dealing with COVID-19 – both the illness and prevention. IWSE was shut down from March through July, and then for a few weeks after Thanksgiving due to COVID positivity. Several staff members lost siblings or parents due to COVID-19. Some parents lost jobs or were unable to pay their rent.
Fifty years later, IWSE cares for children as young as six weeks old. Children who had become used to attending school every weekday and seeing the familiar faces of their teachers had that abruptly taken away. Instead, they stayed home and observed their parents dealing with fear of the unknown, stress, and sadness. Children know when something is going on even if they cannot express it with words.
As trying as the situation was, IWSE and Evanston rallied. Steve Vick, Executive Director, had nothing but praise for his team and the community. Everyone rallied to help. He applied for all the federal grant programs offered so his people could continue getting paid. IWSE sponsored diaper and formula drives in the parking lot every other week for their client families and staff in need. They handed out cash cards so families had help meeting their rent payments, and the Evanston Community Foundation was extremely generous helping with special grants.
The formula drive mentioned above brings IWSE full circle: In 1913, a milk drive was the first program the Evanston women volunteers started to prevent malnutrition among impoverished families with babies and small children. In 1918 the IWSE incorporated and started a Well Baby Clinic to provide free checkups to infants and pre-kindergarten aged children of low income families.
The Well Baby Clinic treated approximately 1,000 children each year from 1918 until 1971. The Evanston Review quoted then director Jean Rasmussen saying, “The society decided that it is time to strike out in a new direction and leave this program to someone else.” The new program the IWSE wanted to establish was a Baby Toddler Nursery. In 1971, four other infant and toddler nurseries existed. Three were on university campuses – Yale, Syracuse, and University of North Carolina – and one was located at Riverside Church in New York City.
The fully licensed nursery opened with spaces for 25 children at 1417 Hinman Ave. in the First Congregational Church of Evanston.
One of the original promotional brochures, found in the files of Evanston Public Library, advertised the nursery as “a unique experience for young children whose mothers re-enter the job market, go back to school or acquire skill training for special needs.” It offered “regular conferences and daily contact with parents” and promised “an individual planned learning experience for each child.”
Linda Webb heard about the nursery several months before it opened. A colleague of her mother’s knew Ms. Rasmussen and suggested that Ms. Webb should apply for one of the 25 spaces. Ms. Webb had recently had a daughter but needed to return to work almost immediately. Every day she left her daughter in the care of her mother or grandmother. The situation was fine on a temporary basis, but she knew this was not going to be a realistic long-term solution. She completed the application and participated in an interview; a few days later she heard that her daughter Denise had clinched one of the 25 spaces. Denise would be the first and youngest baby to be enrolled in Baby Toddler.
Ms. Webb described the mixture of sadness, anxiety, and gratitude she felt as a 21-year old new mom leaving her precious baby girl with people she had met only once before. She remembers the nursery was in the church basement and there was a room with a lot of cribs. There were teachers and a nurse, plus some support staff. She had brought a bag with some of Denise’s essentials: diapers, a change of clothes, a bottle, and a pacifier. The nursery would provide lunch. She kissed her baby and left quickly, not waiting to see if Denise started to cry. She herself had wanted to cry, but she had to get to work.
Later that day she rushed over to Hinman Avenue as soon as she left her office. She peeked in the nursery and Denise was doing fine. She was still the same good-natured baby she had dropped off early that morning. The next day, she repeated the drop off process and Denise was fine – no screaming or crying or hint of anxiety. And from that point on, Ms. Webb was able to go to work without worrying about her daughter’s safety. She had peace of mind. She focused on getting a new job more in line with her goals and values, one with better pay and a more supportive boss. She did that and more, knowing it would not have been possible if not for the support that the Baby Toddler Nursery offered her, at a time when she needed it the most.
IWSE’s role of nurturing children and guiding them has never seemed as vital as it did once IWSE reopened in July. For Mr. Vick and Pamela Staples, the vivacious site director of the Baby Toddler Nursery, it’s all about the first 1,100 days in a child’s life. A study from Harvard University determined, “The early years matter. Early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. New research finds that over one million neural connections per second are formed during the early years.”
Ms. Staples said one of the goals of the Baby Toddler Nursery is helping children develop three important skills: communicate their needs and feelings, be able to regulate those feelings, and be able to problem-solve. These skills provide a solid foundation for the rest of their learning and development. IWSE doesn’t “teach” the alphabet per se; all of the social and educational development the children acquire is done through play.
Understandably, the changes brought on by COVID-19 have presented their own challenges to the IWSE community of directors, teachers, staff, families, and children. IWSE is still operating under abbreviated hours, but hopes to be back to a regular schedule soon. Most of the employees are fully vaccinated. Everyone on staff not vaccinated must take a weekly COVID test; free on-site testing is available every Thursday. Like other public-facing businesses, there are heavy transparent plastic dividers everywhere. Mask-wearing is mandated for everyone over the age of 2. Families are no longer allowed to come into the building to drop off or pick up their children. Instead, a staff member comes outside to escort the child.
One of the most challenging aspects for the teachers has been figuring out how to communicate with the children when they cannot see anyone’s entire face. Ms. Staples said the children had to get used to the teachers all over again after so much time away. Many of them did not have the words to express how they were feeling. There was a lot of crying, but also a lot of hugging, rocking, and consoling.
It all comes back to the teachers. The teachers are one of the main reasons IWSE holds such a special place in people’s hearts in Evanston. Ms. Staples is absolutely passionate about her work – it is what inspires and motivates her every day. Throughout her career Ms. Staples has been guided by mentors who advised, encouraged, and even pushed her to reach for greater responsibilities. She would not have the career she has had without those influences. She insists on making time to develop an educational plan for each of her teachers as a way to help them reach for and meet goals. She is committed to passing on what she knows to her team.
She spoke movingly about one mentor in particular, Candice Dowd, now Dr. Candice Dowd Barnes, an associate professor in the education department at University of Central Arkansas. An author, corporate executive, and public speaker, Dr. Barnes reminisced about how impressed she was with the teachers she met and managed at Baby Toddler Nursery. “Within the second week of me working there, I realized that there were teachers there who had dedicated their careers to Baby Toddler. In talking with them, learning more about them, finding out why they chose this field, and why they liked working in Baby Toddler, it was so clear and evident to me that Baby Toddler already had a culture that cultivated a lot of compassion and care, not only for the students, but also for each other.”
Several of the teachers in Baby Toddler have been with IWSE for many years. One teacher, Geri Pace, has been with Baby Toddler for more than 46 years, two others have worked for ISWE for 35 and 27 years, respectively, and several more for nearly 20 years. Dr. Barnes commented, “This is almost unheard of in early care and education. It is phenomenal. You almost never see that. These professionals have spent their careers caring for the children in the community.”
Low teacher turnover adds a great deal of stability and institutional knowledge to the organization. It is a quality parents look for when they explore IWSE for their child. When Ms. Staples hires new teachers, as she did recently, she looks for people who want more than a job – they want to devote themselves to early childhood care and learning. New teachers bring energy and new ideas into the mix, encouraging the teachers to learn from each other.
Teachers are the heart of IWSE. Currently the organization is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to raise $225,000. All funds raised will be used specifically to benefit IWSE teachers in the following ways: improving compensation and benefits, which brings greater economic stability for teachers and their families; providing opportunities for professional development and best practice strategies, thus making sure Baby Toddler continues to be a leader among early childhood care and education; and professionalizing the field of early care and education. Several volunteers at IWSE have committed to matching every dollar raised—a great incentive for people looking to make a big impact with a donation.
Plans are still in development for the small but public celebration as the anniversary date approaches. There will certainly be special guests, perhaps sparkling apple juice with which to make a toast, and lots of gratitude and appreciation for IWSE, the Baby Toddler teachers, the families, and of course, the children. Taking care of them is not only an investment in the children themselves, but in our community.