The potential loss of early education centers and early childhood educators could spell disaster for Michigan’s families and workforce. But not if the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children has anything to say about that.

Thanks to COVID-19, this spring many working parents faced the almost impossible task of being both an employee and a caregiver—simultaneously. In close quarters. While punching mute on the Zoom meeting and wearing sweatpants covered in oatmeal.

For many working families in Michigan, the shutdowns have exacerbated an already existing challenge: the need for high quality, accessible, affordable early childhood education, staffed by professionals who nurture their children’s developmental needs.

It’s a reality Erica Willard stares down every day. As executive director of the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children (MIAEYC), she’s on the front lines battling for more education, awareness and better pay for quality educators, as well as generally leading efforts in voicing the importance of investing in high-quality early childhood experiences and professional practitioners.

“Quality childcare and early education are expensive,” Willard says. “And yet, these teachers are making $9 an hour. It’s not sustainable.”

And neither is a workforce without it. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 64 percent of married-couple families with children have both parents working. “Our work as an organization really promotes the health of three different workforces,” Willard says. “The professionals working in early childhood education, the families who need it in order to be able to work and the health and development of the future workforce, the children benefiting from quality early education.”

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It’s easy for some to brush this off as a working family (or even more accurately, a working woman’s) issue, but Willard emphasizes that the ripple effect of high-quality childcare—and the lack of it—have enormous social and economic ramifications.

On the advocacy side, MIAEYC works with policy makers and legislators to protect and promote the interest of early childhood centers and professionals. “We’re trying to be a sounding board,” Willard says. “Teachers and center directors are nervous about the current health situation and facing a loss of business. If we as a society don’t invest in this, the effects will be felt for years.”

MIAEYC focuses a great deal of its work on growing, educating and supporting the early childhood workforce. They offer professional development opportunities and scholarships to help staff get credentialed, as well as providing networking and mentoring opportunities in order for professionals in the field to connect. This past year, MIAEYC rolled out a student chapter of the organization at the college level to support the next generation of educators.

Donations don’t just change the lives of educators; they change the lives of the children they teach, and the families who rely on that education and support. “Of course, we’d love universal family leave for those first critical years, but we know that’s not the reality for many people,” Willard says. “This is our reality and the alternative—to be able to find a program where parents can go to work and have a safe, dependable and stable program that nurtures children and contributes to the economic impact of having an available workforce.”

Photo(s) by MIAEYC