‘Schools, not jails:’ Kansas City leaders welcome new child care center January 9, 2019

“When I was a kid, my house was where all the kids would come after school,” says Deborah Mann. “It was because of my mom. She was the type of person who, if she saw a kid who was hungry or in need, was there to cook a meal and help out.”

Mann, now Executive Director of the Emmanuel Family and Child Development Center (EFCDC) in Kansas City, has spent the past 32 years building on her mother’s legacy in increasingly remarkable ways. After college, she started her career caring for 15 kids out of that same house. Her work gradually blossomed into a thriving early childhood development center serving nearly 200 children.

Most people would consider that a huge accomplishment for a lifetime. But Mann, who is also a foster parent and graduate student in counseling and psychology, is not most people – and she’s not done.

On November 7, 2018, she took another huge step forward for Kansas City’s children and families, breaking ground on what will be a gleaming, 28,000-square-foot, $9 million facility at 4750 Prospect Avenue. It is one of the first new development projects – and by all accounts the first childhood center – to be built in the neighborhood in more than 25 years. 

“Schools, not jails,” Mann said to the standing-room-only audience of civic leaders, families, lenders, and other supporters at the groundbreaking. She went on to cite research showing that kids who aren’t kindergarten-ready are more likely to end up in prison, a heartbreaking outcome that spurs her work.    

The crowd cheered as she grabbed a shovel alongside Kansas City Mayor Sly James, Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, a group of smiling Emmanuel students, and key project partners, including Josh Best, IFF’s Director of Real Estate Solutions in Kansas City.

Later, Best reflected, “Deborah’s whole life has been dedicated to helping kids and this community. We believe in her and we believe in this project.”

More childcare slots, jobs, and family services

The new center will provide 175 more seats for students, helping address the pressing need for childcare providers in Kansas City’s urban core.

“We’re in an area known as a childcare desert,” Mann explains. According to a March 2017 study by Mid America Regional Council, the zip codes EFCDC serves show ratios as high as 46 preschoolers per one available childcare slot.

The facility will also bring employment opportunities. In addition to 230 construction jobs, Mann expects to hire approximately 67 more staff members to help operate the center. Many of those employees will receive extensive training and education to ensure teaching excellence.

“I believe in not only educating myself, but also my staff,” Mann says. “We can’t always get already-degreed teachers to come work in the urban core – it’s hard to compete with some of the school districts’ levels of pay. But when I hire teachers willing to go to school, I can provide access to scholarships through a partner program, educate them, and build the staff that I want.”

Another bold component of Mann’s vision: wrap-around services that reduce barriers to care. Her current center already offers night care for families with parents who work second shifts and buses for kids who don’t have another way to get to school.

The new center goes even further. It will include an on-site health clinic that will provide free care to children and their families. Mann partnered with the Samuel U. Rogers Health Center to make the clinic part of the facility, and hopes to bring in additional service providers who can assist with financial literacy, homeownership, and credit-building.

“We’re taking a holistic approach to early childhood,” she says. “When you help the family as a whole, then the child has a better opportunity to succeed.”    

‘There will be a building on this corner’

The groundbreaking was the culmination of five years of grueling fundraising and exhaustive planning on Mann’s part. Over that period, she pulled together $9 million from a wide range of sources: tax credits, philanthropy, local and state programs, and multiple lenders, including IFF, which joined the project about three years ago.

“The partnership has been amazing,” she says. “When IFF joined, we were stuck. And now we’re making history on a corner that has been a sore thumb for years, bringing back some beauty to the community.”

She recalls driving by the center’s construction site with her own children, who are now grown, and telling them, “Stretch out your hands and stand in agreement with me: There will be a building, an early childhood building on this corner.” 

IFF is helping bring her vision to life through:

  • A loan of $4.8 million. According to Best, “We usually cap out at $2 million. But our leaders and board stepped up.”
  • Real estate planning expertise. Guided in part by our relevant research on early childhood education in St. Louis and Detroit, IFF analyzed Mann’s original architecture and financial plans and helped her refine them with an eye for continued quality of care and smooth operations. We also tapped our network for qualified partners, including an architect familiar with large nonprofit development projects like Mann’s.
  • Oversight of the facility’s design and construction. While Mann continues to run EFCDC, IFF will play a key role ensuring that the new facility meets her and the community’s expectations.        

“I think this is an exemplary project for IFF,” Best says. “And that’s because of Deborah. Great leaders like her bring out the best in us.”